Apprenticeships for office jobs can prepare inner cities for the future of work

As major cities across the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, they face formidable challenges in their downtown business and office districts, as well as in their labor markets. Today, most American downtowns have lower levels of activity than before the pandemic, especially in big cities…and the federal relief that made up for the loss of sales taxes, transit fares and other revenue is running out.

At the same time, what many initially called a “big resignation” in the labor market turned out to be more of a “big reshuffle” – a gap workers from one job, industry or career to another as persons reassessed their living and working conditions during the pandemic. Job vacancies and terminations have been reached records in 2021.

Last week being National Learning WeekThis piece asks the question: What role can learning play in addressing these issues and fostering more inclusive economic development in the inner city?

The impacts of the pandemic on the workforce continue to challenge city centers

Town centers face two challenges that will require a collective effort to overcome.

First, even as the share of workers (and their share of days) working remotely has gradually decreases since the beginning of the pandemic, the office vacancy rate in major city centers continues to ascend, and at a faster pace than in the region as a whole. Even if this divergence ends up reaching a new balance, it opens a breach in the relationship between city centers and work.

The second challenge concerns dysfunctional labor markets. The first economic shock of the pandemic was concentrate in black and Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods, which have seen severe job losses. Those jobs have been slow to come back and workers have been slow to get back to them, as the prolonged pandemic has led to an acceleration retreats and low immigration, while growing consumer demand, lack of childcare and other factors have contributed to tight labor markets and high employee turnover. Employers are now finding that the old methods of hiring and retaining workers no longer work. Even in sectors of the economy that have not experienced major job losses, these old methods of recruitment and selection reproduce a opportunity gapwith a selection of candidates centered on diplomas leaving many workers and neighborhoods on the sidelines.

By embracing learning, city centers are in a unique position to create a new competitive advantage and value proposition for themselves as talent engines for the future. And the wave of federal funding for workforce development, infrastructure, innovation and climate adaptation will create additional opportunities to strategically engage local talent in reimagining downtown neighborhoods.

Apprenticeship is not just for trades

It’s time to rethink the way we relate local talent to careers and provide more options for people to access high-quality jobs. In the United States, apprenticeship programs have long been limited to skilled trades such as electricians, plumbers and construction workers. These are relatively well-paying jobs, and they remain important to the success of downtowns, especially as federal infrastructure funding hits the streets.

What is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships combine long-term, paid, work-based learning opportunities with structured study programs to ensure that the learner gains both training and practical experience in an occupation. Apprenticeships are best suited to jobs that require a mix of hands-on experience and conceptual foundations learned in class. They can be an attractive option for learners who prefer to learn by doing, who are looking for paid pathways to a profession and/or a university degree.

Yet there are many other industries and occupations concentrated in inner cities that struggle to fill openings and retain workers. Finance and insurance, professional and business services, and many government administration jobs could greatly benefit from high school and community college offering learning pathways in currently hard-to-fill roles, such as project managers, account managers, cybersecurity technicians and graphic designers. .

In Swiss, learning are offered in a wider range of industries and professions, and 70% of high school youth participate. The most popular choice among apprentices is the business sector, which includes banking, retail, public administration, and some information technology occupations.

Companies generally benefit apprenticeship training as well, although Costs and Benefits can vary. Learnings show promise to help businesses become more innovative, build a more diverse workforce, save on hiring and turnover costs, reduce overtime, and recruit and retain workers in hard-to-fill jobs . Researchers Samuel Muehlemann and Stefan C. Wolter found that companies in Switzerland and Germany were more willing to train apprentices when they could recoup their costs, which was more likely to happen with longer apprenticeship durations, competitive labor markets (apprentices contributed to reduce hiring and recruitment costs) and/or converting apprentices to full-time employees for at least one year.

Barriers to Scaling Apprenticeships in the United States

Overcoming the long-standing trend of restricting apprenticeship to a handful of skilled trades will require transformative changes in our K-12 institutions, in post-secondary education, and in the pathways to employment and career. While there is bipartisan support for expanding apprenticeships and other opportunities to earn and learn, most efforts to date have taken the form of grant-funded initiatives and pilot programs rather than system-level changes such as formula-based funding for learning intermediaries, redesigning enrollment processes to fit 21st-century jobs and professions, and creating incentives for states and institutions to education to develop diploma learning or give university courses credit for work-based learning.

Key barriers to scaling up apprenticeships outside of the trades include:

  • Low awareness of learning options among businesses, students, parents and society has led to poor understanding of what it is or its value proposition outside of a narrow set of industries and professions where it is standardized.
  • Registration processes for state and federal apprenticeships can be onerous for businesses and can include rules and terms that don’t seem relevant to roles outside of the trades (e.g., “journeyman” is gendered and doesn’t is not commonly used in an office environment).
  • Siled governance structures and funding streams between educational institutions, employer organizations and learners have made coordination onerous and reduced alignment between available curricula, skills needed by employers and career awareness.
  • Misperceptions rooted in the history of apprenticeship and vocational education in the United States have contributed to the stigmatization of apprenticeship as a lower-status alternative to a college degree (rather than a paid path towards a degree). Another common misconception is that apprenticeship requires the presence of a union.

Despite these obstacles, there is a growing momentum to extend learning beyond traditional industries and integrate them into education systems and degree courses. These “new necklace” learnings (an expression coined by IBM) focus on liberal professions in industries such as insurance, finance, business, and technology. In Chicago, an employer-led network launched by Accenture, Aon and Zurich North America—the Chicago Learning Network— brings employers, education partners and apprentices together to move hiring practices away from an over-reliance on academic degrees and supports the expansion of apprenticeships to cultivate talent from more diverse backgrounds. And in September, New York Mayor Eric Adams announcement a historic investment in a new public-private partnership to connect 500 young people to paid apprenticeship roles in finance, technology and business operations. Technological apprenticeships are also growing in response to vacancies and the need for more racial and gender diversity in technology; that of San Francisco TechSF was one of the first to extend recorded apprenticeships to several IT professions.

Watch the recent event | Racial Equity and Inclusion in Tech: Can Apprenticeships Help Change Hiring Practices?

Such learning pilots can provide proof of concept, but real change requires investment in new institutions, pathways and systems over time. Territorial governance organizations in our city centers are well placed to engage local talent that has been sidelined from economic prosperity, strengthen the links between education and employment, and develop learning for young people in as long as opportunity multiplier. What is needed for the city centers of the future is not a new program or a pilot project, but a realignment of existing institutions that facilitate the participation of employers and workers.

The pandemic has accelerated trends in America’s downtowns, workplaces, and labor markets, so in many ways the future is already here. Expanding apprenticeship programs to strengthen local talent pathways into hard-to-fill professional jobs will help cities leverage the workforce they already have to drive inclusive innovation and regional growth.