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

NEW YORK (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.”

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Zurich Insurance Group is seen at the company’s headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland September 2, 2013. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann//File Photo – RC193C10C3F0

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 plans.

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 specialist.

“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 (VOWG_p.DE) and Bosch [ROBSCJ.UL].

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 shortly.

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.”

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lauren Young