May 31, 2018 / 10:01 AM / a year ago

The rise of the apprentice: a European tradition comes to the U.S.

 (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
    By Chris Taylor
    NEW YORK, May 31 (Reuters) - The growing number of
apprenticeships in the U.S. has more to do with European
companies importing the practice into their American operations
than with the long-running NBC television reality show and its
former host who now lives in the White House. 
   Traditional apprenticeships are more than summer internships
familiar to Americans, and involve a significant service period
of a year or two, plus training, often for a community college
degree. Apprenticeships come with plenty of corporate support,
including mentor partnerships and placement across multiple
company divisions. 
    And they always involve getting paid.   
    While companies such as Zurich Insurance Group         ,
Accenture         and Walgreens         are ramping up their
programs, apprenticeships are not totally new to the U.S. 
    About 80 percent of registered American apprenticeships
occur in skilled trades, such as plumbing, electrical work or
metal work. Yet there are only about 500,000 of these
apprenticeships, representing a tiny sliver of U.S. workers. 
    But if the U.S. continues to follow the European model,
there is plenty of room for growth. In Europe, the
apprenticeship system has deep roots throughout the entire
economy, in particular in Germany, where apprentices are almost
4.0 percent of the workforce.
    European companies have been introducing apprenticeships
into their U.S. businesses. Switzerland-based Zurich Insurance,
for instance, built a U.S. program in 2015, beginning with about
20 apprentices per year and the goal is to reach 100 by 2020.
    The first class already graduated and is rotating through
various business divisions of the insurance giant while getting
a degree at local community college Harper College (near
headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois) at the same time.
    The program lasts two years, with three days a week spent on
the job and two days in the classroom. It then requires a
commitment to stay on for a year at the company after that.
Apprentices have the opportunity to apply to different divisions
throughout the company.
    “We think of it as another avenue to attract and develop
talent for the industry,” said Al Crook, a human resources
executive at Zurich North America. “With the proven track record
of apprenticeships in Europe, we knew it was a fairly safe test
to run.”
    Zurich Insurance has since been sharing its model with other
companies, such as financial consultancy Accenture and pharmacy
giant Walgreens, which are developing their own apprenticeship
    For apprentice graduate Dane Lyons, a 39-year-old father of
two, the unique program allowed him to get a foothold in an
entirely new career, where he is now an underwriting service
    “It let me check both boxes, of getting some experience
while also going to school,” Lyons said. “With the current
prices of college tuition, it is not something everyone can
handle – so this gives people another path.”
    According to Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on
Education & Skills at Washington-based think tank New America,
other firms that are in the apprenticeship vanguard include: The
Hartford, Aon Insurance, and tech firms like Microsoft         
and Amazon         . 
    American apprenticeships have also flourished as German
companies have set up U.S. operations in recent years, including
 BMW          , Siemens           , Volkswagen             and
Bosch            .
    The U.S. government is also trying to help out. The Obama
administration supported them, funding apprenticeship programs
to the tune of $250 million. The Trump administration does, too.
An executive order pledges to double funding, and a task force
set up to promote their development will roll out guidelines
    Multiple states are active on the apprenticeship front,
setting up their own initiatives too, among them Colorado, the
Carolinas, Wisconsin and Washington State.
    With the nation’s unemployment rate at a historically low 
3.9 percent, the unique combination of on-the-job and
educational training is a useful way to lure potential talent.
    “Young people don’t have any preset notions about
apprenticeships, so it feels like there is an opportunity to
reshape the whole space right now,” said New America's McCarthy.
    “It’s a real way for families to acquire good skills and get
into good jobs.”

 (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lauren Young)
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