How I Became An Advocate For Apprenticeship, An Age-old Practice To Develop A Skilled Workforce

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These days, hard work, good grades, top schools, distinguished references, extracurricular activities and international experiences – options all parents dream for their children – don’t necessarily pay off, at least for my generation. I have a Bachelor’s Degree from a top American University, and a Master’s Degree from an esteemed International Relations school in Europe (Kofi Annan’s alma mater). I am industrious, having worked in numerous part-time positions, in tandem with my studies, in retail, hospitality, law, finance and international development. I taught for two years in Japan, managed events, and did research for an international organization in Switzerland.

Yet, even with all my accumulated worldly and working experiences, coupled with prestigious degrees, I face difficulty entering the work force as a regular full time employee. I am a recent graduate with significant student debt, and my story echoes many of my peers. Only through my most recent position as a short-term traineeship for the Global Apprenticeships Network (GAN), I have started to fit the pieces of why together.

Earlier this year, as part of my Master’s program, I came across the GAN, a Swiss non-profit, public-private partnership, with the motto to create- “skills for business and jobs for youth.” I was offered a traineeship as a work-based aspect of my Master’s program. Initially, the opportunity felt like a step backwards after having worked “real” jobs. I was also skeptical. I have read articles about vicious cycles of never-ending internships, reserved for the privileged, with parents, eager to pay, as long as it can ensure a career entry. Fortunately, my traineeship was paid, but I was worried the GAN might be an advocacy group for employers to exploit cheap labor.

I was wrong. Most employers seek to invest in people– it makes better business sense. This is especially evident as talent acquisition and retention are increasingly difficult. Millennials are referred to as the job-hopping generation. To add complexity to today’s workforce is the rapidity of changing needs and skills.

As noted by GAN Chair, Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group, by 2025, roughly 60% of youth entering the workforce today will be performing jobs that don’t yet exist. Cultivating a workforce with enough of the right skills is a challenge in all education systems across the globe. Employers, businesses, and the public sector, are often unable to find the skills they need among new graduates.

Working for the GAN, I came to understand that apprenticeships are a proven tool to overcome youth unemployment and skills mismatch. This is evidenced in low youth unemployment statistics of many European countries with long-standing apprenticeship programs, such as Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

Recently, the U.S. signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Switzerland to better understand the Swiss apprenticeship model. The Obama Administration is convinced the benefits of apprenticeships, as evidenced in grants worth millions to invest in apprenticeships and public private partnerships to spur its innovation and extend them to strategic sectors including healthcare, IT, finance, and advanced manufacturing. On average, 87% of young people who complete apprenticeship programs are hired, with a starting wage above $50,000. The benefits of apprenticeship are significant to employers– according to a White House fact sheet- “for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers may get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity.”

Up until recently, apprenticeships had not gained traction in the U.S. At the root of this is a reputational problem, as many around the globe believe the pathway to be a outdated practice, limited to certain sectors in manufacturing, construction and artisanal trades. Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere were apprentices; but somewhere in American history, apprenticeships started to be seen as the less desirable route to a profession. Whereas in Switzerland, the CEO of UBS and GAN Board Member, Sergio Ermotti, started his career as a banking apprentice.

In Europe, apprenticeships are found in almost all industries. They are registered, regulated, paid (with annual raises), last up to three years, and culminate in highly respectable degrees. Apprenticeships as a career pathway were something I had never heard of, nor considered, until I came to Europe. As a young person that supposedly followed all the right steps, yet is struggling to find a job in my field, apprenticeships are a path I wish had been offered.  As eloquently expressed by U.S. Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, apprenticeships are- “the other college, except without the debt.”

While not an apprenticeship, the skills I have built on through my own traineeship (writing, diplomacy, event management, social media, data analysis and technical skills) are invaluable. I do not believe I could have acquired them in a university setting alone. Working for GAN Head Quarters in Switzerland, I saw the theory in practice. Several of my colleagues have apprenticeship backgrounds in diverse fields such as commerce, finance, and digital marketing, integrating studies with practical, hands-on skills acquired through working.

I have been fortunate enough to have had this traineeship, which has given me a global view on employer-driven solutions. I have returned home at an opportune time when apprenticeships are making a comeback domestically. I am managing a GAN event that provides hope for the future. At the cornerstone of this event are ongoing and future commitments of millions of opportunities for youth, by GAN Members and Partners, representing some of the largest Multinational Corporations and international organizations.

On October 6, our event at the White House aims to spark a Global Apprenticeship Movement, bringing together key stakeholders: youth, government, businesses, NGOs, and academics to tackle the issue of youth unemployment, using the tool of work-based training programs as a route to good jobs and skills acquisition. By linking what the GAN does on a global level, to domestic initiatives in the U.S., the GAN aims not only to advocate for apprenticeships, but also to forge new innovative public-private partnerships as a solution to a number of workforce challenges. Having been a member of the research team, we found GAN Members will have impacted over 9,382,712 youth through 2020.[1] As soon as this conference ends my contract concludes, but I am hopeful my skills and connections formed through my traineeship will result in one less youth unemployed.

[1] The definition of youth varies slightly by company. The initiatives counted within this figure include those that are ongoing or have been recently launched. Opportunities include various training programs such as advice on CV writing, interviews, extending education and training, work readiness programs, apprenticeships, traineeships, internships, employment, etc.




Spencer Bridgers is a Trainee at the Global Apprenticeship Network. 

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Hiring & Retention Practices, Personal Story, Workforce Development,
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