Meet the modern apprenticeships

The state of Wisconsin is expanding the apprenticeship model to new frontiers.

If the word “apprentice” conjures images of medieval masons or colonial cobblers, you may need to reacquaint yourself with the concept. Although the large majority of Wisconsin apprentices enter what one might classify as a traditional occupation, such as plumber, electrician, machinist and barber, the state is expanding the apprenticeship model to new frontiers.

Two of the latest additions to Wisconsin apprenticeship’s 200 or so occupations come from the fields of finance and information technology. These business sectors might seem a far cry from apprenticeship’s blue-collar roots, yet they benefit greatly from the tried-and-true training model.

Demand for IT services is ubiquitous in today’s business climate, yet Wisconsin businesses compete for a limited pool of IT professionals, sometimes with out-of-state companies that offer Wisconsin workers the benefit of working remotely from home. Organizations like Delta Dental, Footlocker and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin decided to take a proactive approach to addressing the IT skills gap.

They collaborated with the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards and, with funding from the federal WAGES grant, helped develop the state’s IT apprenticeship curriculum. In 2018, BAS registered its first IT apprentices and currently offers apprenticeships in three IT occupations: service desk technician, data analyst and software developer, with a fourth, broadband service technician, under development.

Delta Dental, whose 80-person IT department is based in Stevens Point, used the software developer curriculum to provide a promotional opportunity to one of its employees. Mike Upright, director of IT applications for Delta Dental, stated that enterprises which employ IT staff in Wisconsin may have a lot to gain by exploring an apprenticeship model, but might not readily associate the two.

“Most people, when you think about traditional apprenticeship, you think about manufacturing and skilled trades. So, most folks and organizations are going to struggle with that concept at first,” Upright said.

One of the primary functions of BAS is to identify industries and occupations that are conducive to the apprenticeship model. They then work with experts and the business community to create a training and education blueprint. This process is industry driven and oftentimes begins when interested parties contact BAS.

That recently happened in the finance sector, when Principal Financial Group, MassMutual and Equity Bank identified the need for a uniform, on-the-job training program and related instruction for its financial service professionals. In 2018, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to register an apprenticeship program for that occupation; it was also the first foray into the financial arena for the state’s apprenticeship program.

Though challenges presented themselves, such as adapting the apprenticeship to a largely commission-based employment model, BAS worked closely with the business community and Employ Milwaukee to design curriculum and implement the program. Currently, the year-long training program has four active apprentices in the Milwaukee area, with the potential to grow as financial sector employers learn about the program and with the concept of apprenticeship.

Whether it’s finance, IT or a new sector entirely, employers facing skilled worker shortages may consider registered apprenticeship to address their recruitment, training and retention needs. Once you are able to think outside the historical confines of the apprenticeship model, the sky is the limit.

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