Long before the Rust Belt began to rust, apprenticeships were a fixture in factories and the skilled trades.
A young person could train as, say, a plumber or electrician or carpenter and make a good living without ever going to college.
Now, in a twist on that age-old and honorable career path, white-collar industries are beginning to develop apprenticeship programs. Tired of looking for scarce talent, they are grooming their own. At the same time, they are offering young people a more affordable way to get a college degree — earn as you learn.
A pioneer in the trend locally is Aon, the global professional services company with strong roots in Chicago, which launched an apprenticeship program in January. Twenty-six apprentices work four days a week at Aon and attend classes at a community college one day a week.
Aon hopes to encourage other insurance and financial services firms to create apprenticeship programs, and that can’t happen soon enough. The cost of a four-year college degree grows ever higher, pricing out even middle-class young people or burdening them with enormous debt.
Apprenticeships, creatively implemented, hold considerable promise for solving that problem. Apprenticeships were part of the bedrock of Chicago’s old industrial economy, and they can be again, this time on LaSalle Street.
Our nation’s unemployment rate fell in April to a low 4.4 percent. Given that good news, it might seem counter intuitive to suggest that smarter strategies, including apprenticeships, now are called for to grow and train the American workforce. But a closer look at the nation’s employment picture suggests that many workers remain underemployed, often treading water in low-wage jobs because they can’t afford college. Other Americans, long unemployed, have stopped looking for work because their skills have eroded.
The nation’s unemployment rate today is the lowest since 2007, but the proportion of working-age Americans with a job — the labor participation rate — is at a troubling low, just 62.9 percent. Our nation is inching closer to full employment, that is to say, but we have a ways to go.
Crucial to achieving true full employment, economists say, is ramping up apprenticeship programs for workers across the spectrum, whether for jobs in factories or Loop offices. The campaign for more apprenticeships has politically bipartisan appeal, as well, which must come as relief in this deeply divided country.
President Barack Obama pushed apprenticeships programs, and President Donald Trump has signaled that he favors them, too. To “buy American,” it certainly helps to train America.
Last week, Barack and Michelle Obama announced they are donating $1 million for apprenticeships through the Chicagoland Workforce Funders Alliance. While Obama was president, his administration set a goal of doubling apprenticeships by 2019. And last month, in the same spirit, Mayor Rahm Emanuel included apprenticeships in his “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” program to encourage students to advance their educations after high school.
In March, Marc Benioff, CEO of the San Francisco cloud computing company Salesforce, called for creating 5 million apprenticeships in five years. To which President Trump replied, “Let’s go for that 5 million.”
Apprenticeships traditionally have been a tradition of the blue-collar trades, and the need there remains very real. In the Chicago area, some 15,000 to 30,000 jobs in manufacturing and other trades go unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the required skills — and that number is likely to grow as baby boomers retire. That’s a huge opportunity, but also a vulnerability. If we don’t train the necessary workers, those jobs will disappear as companies cut back production or move away.
But in a complex and increasingly high-tech economy such as Chicago’s, the appeal of apprenticeship programs only grows.
Big white-collar industries, taking a page from Aon’s playbook, can help others by helping themselves.