Ellyn Shook, "Earn While You Learn: How Apprenticeships Can Accelerate Reskilling in the Digital Age"


It is a fact that the digital age will create both winners and losers – organizations and individuals. Responsible leaders and winning organizations are those who strike the right balance – using the best of technology to elevate, not eliminate people.

Technology has tremendous potential to create entirely new job categories and new opportunities for workers. For example, very few knew what a “mobile app developer “was 10 years ago. Thanks to the launch of the iPhone in 2007, there are now an estimated 12 million mobile app developers globally. Scores of other new jobs were borne out of new tech – drone operator, social media manager and autonomous vehicle engineer, to name a few. But what about the worker on the shop floor? The reality of the World Economic Forum’s prediction is sobering: By 2020, more than five million jobs will disappear from fields like manufacturing and customer service.

Much of the discussion about the future workforce focuses on the two poles at either end of the continuum – machines taking over or creating exponential opportunity. At Accenture, we think it’s the “missing middle” of the spectrum where we’ll see the most opportunity – jobs that require humans and machines to come together to create a better result. It’s moving from an outdated assembly-line view, where workers and machines don’t interact much, to an “assemblage” view where they rely on each other to complete the work.

But positive outcomes aren’t inevitable. Today’s leaders must act now to avoid leaving their people, and most important source of competitive advantage, behind. In Accenture’s study, “Harnessing Revolution – Creating the Future Workforce”, we recommend a path forward for progressive companies and proactive leaders, focusing on three key actions. The most important is to accelerate retraining their people.

And companies are starting to do just that. ManpowerGroup’s 2016 global talent shortage study reports the number of employers investing in training their own people to fill talent gaps has more than doubled since 2015, from one in five to more than half. AT&T’s commitment to retraining over 100,000 people by 2020 for radically new jobs, fueled by advances in technology, has gone viral. At Accenture, we retrained 150,000+ of our people to be conversant in new IT within the past 18 months through immersive digital and classroom learning, combined with field work. Our people displayed their enthusiasm to learn by racking up 24 million completions of cutting edge learning modules in the past year alone. This enthusiasm was also a key finding in our research – 85% of the 10,000 workers we surveyed across companies globally are willing to invest their own time to learn new skills.

Apprenticeship opportunity?

Building on this desire to learn, we need to find other solutions to quickly reskill today’s workers so they remain relevant. Apprenticeships in the U.S. got a boost earlier this summer with the Trump administration’s executive order to expand federally funded apprenticeship programs. Long popular and widely successful in Europe, countries like Switzerland and Germany are the gold standards for apprentice programs across industries. In both Germany and Switzerland, Accenture offers IT apprenticeships where apprentices take university studies and work on our projects over a 3- to 4-year period. In Germany, we’ve doubled the number of apprentices in the past year, and the long-term view in Switzerland is to more than triple the number of apprentices we have by 2020.

According to The Atlantic, fewer than 5% of young people train as apprentices in the U.S. In Germany, the number is closer to 60% – in manufacturing, hospitality, IT, banking and healthcare – and represents a highly respected career path. Additionally, only about 0.35% of the 146 million jobs in the U.S. were filled by active apprentices in 2016 – an untapped opportunity.

The paradox: workers without jobs and jobs without workers

If we take a closer look at the U.S. manufacturing industry alone, labor statistics show that American manufacturers have added nearly a million jobs in the past seven years. However, 390,000 such jobs were unfilled last month due to a widening skill gap that is projected to expand further.

Contrast that with the stories of U.S. factory workers being displaced due to automation, downsizing or movement of jobs outside the country. The Associated Press (AP) launched its Future of Work series in August and highlighted this paradox – sharing the story of 62-year-old Herbie Mays of Ohio, whose last day with 3M was in March. He’s struggled to find a new job despite the fact that GE Aviation, a mere 10 miles from his home, is expanding and hiring workers to make jet engines using breakthrough technology. More and more factory jobs now demand education and technical skills that many workers don’t have. Andy Winnett, who directs John Deere’s apprenticeship program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington, aptly shared that “the toolbox is now a computer.”

We must build upon the traditional apprenticeship model that targets students, to create a much bigger idea that helps displaced workers build the skills needed to regain work or enter a new profession.

In the AP story, we also met A.J. Scherman, 37, an apprentice who is retraining to be a “mechatronics technician,” combining computer skills with electrical and mechanical engineering skills, at Stihl, Inc., a German-based company with a facility in Virginia. These skills will enable him to read diagnostic software on computer screens attached to each robot to repair them and reprogram changes. His new role is a great example of “assemblage” that I talked about earlier – focusing on those middle jobs where humans and machines come together to achieve a better outcome. A.J. is also earning a college degree as part of the apprenticeship and will finish debt-free, thanks to financial aid from Stihl.

Multi-Industry and Multi-Generation

The opportunities extend beyond manufacturing. In the past month, Accenture announced two new IT apprenticeship collaborations in the U.S. – one with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas to provide paid apprenticeships to students and adults. The second, through our collaboration with AON, expands our partnership with the City of Chicago’s College to Careers to Initiative, where we provide apprenticeships through the Center for Excellence for IT, focusing on job-ready skills and experience in IT and cybersecurity.

Healthcare apprenticeships are also on the rise. U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta recently visited Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan, where its medical assistant apprenticeship program is the nation’s first to be accredited by the Commission of Allied Health Education Programs.

The Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) is another important example. GAN bands together companies, associations and other international organizations at a global level and also within countries to promote work readiness programs and quality apprenticeships. One of GAN’s top priorities is to help to create job opportunities for young people by aligning skill development to business demand within particular geographies and industries. At the national level, they also help to influence public policy related to the future of work and the skills gap.

In the U.K., organizations are creating apprenticeships for more mature workers. Many businesses recognize that a 50-year old can potentially stay with the employer another 15-20 years until retirement. Barclays’ “Bolder” apprenticeship program aims to boost job prospects later in life, encouraging individuals back into the workforce or transitioning them to a new field. Apprentices can be within the company or apply from outside. Brian Buckley, a Bolder apprentice at Barclays who had been unemployed, says that he’s discovered skills he didn’t realize he had and that “the apprenticeship has given me a real confidence boost and a new, positive outlook on life. I now have a goal, and it’s encouraging me to go further.”

A new life script

Gone are the days when you studied for a profession, got a job, and stayed for your entire career. Constant, high-velocity change is synonymous with the digital age. And, we need a new life script that matches it – one that is increasingly agile and supports continuous learning. Workers, employers, educators, legislators and communities – the entire talent ecosystem – must encourage a new rhythm of learning, working, learning more, pivoting, working, upskilling, etc. As responsive leaders, we have the opportunity and obligation to influence this as the new norm.

Apprenticeships are an important solution in an organization’s arsenal. They ensure the company has the talent needed to remain competitive while also fulfilling a commitment to their people and, in turn, enabling the communities in which they work and live to remain vibrant.