This article originally appeared in The Hill.
With unemployment nearing historic lows, corporate earnings surging and consumer confidence at a 17-year high, the U.S. economy is finally kicking into high gear. These welcome developments are opening new doors of opportunity for millions of Americans who entered the job market or struggled to make ends meet during our nation’s slow recovery from the depths of the Great Recession.
Unfortunately, many job-seeking Americans are not on a straight path to a good job — a challenge I have focused on over much of my career. Despite peak demand for labor, far too many are missing out on jobs and career advancement because they lack the requisite skills and training. The reality is clear: The skills gap is not closing rapidly enough for employers or would-be employees.
This is a challenge the private sector, government and educators are working to address. The pervasive skills gap is the driving force behind the National Network of Business and Industry Associations, which is comprised of 25 organizations reaching more than 775,000 companies in sectors with 84 million employees. Along multiple fronts, the National Network is identifying and supporting innovative solutions to put the skills gap out of business.
We are particularly energized by a powerful model being employed across the country: Work-and-learn programs are proving to be an ideal approach for a wide array of businesses to meet their current workforce needs, while also building a strong pipeline for the future.
For many unemployed and underemployed Americans, work-and-learn programs offer earning power in the short term, while allowing people to acquire skills that will empower them find their first, next, and better jobs. Encouragingly, work-and-learn initiatives are also inspiring reforms in traditional seat-time-based educational pathways and institutions, resulting in more graduates who hit the ground running and excel in their chosen fields.
Most people are familiar with work-and-learn programs in the context of the traditional apprenticeship, which has long been a staple of job preparation in many trades. But to provide real value and be a useful model of workforce preparation in sectors well beyond the trades, today’s apprenticeships must be demand-driven and directly connected to the needs of the modern workforce.
High quality work-and-learn programs combine theory and hands-on, job-related training with skills assessments, mentorship and paid work with a pathway to employment. The National Network’s recent report, “Apprenticeships for the Modern World,” highlights real-world examples of these increasingly popular and successful programs that employ some or all of the following:
- Blended Learning, which melds work and classroom experiences adroitly
- Credit for Prior Knowledge and Experience, such as military service
- Industry Skill Standards and Credentials, to align the experience with employer expectations
- Mentorship, to maximize support for participants
- Employment Arrangement, to ensure that participants get real work experience
- Paid Work Experience and Advancement Opportunity
An excellent example of work-and-learn in practice is the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education. KY FAME is a partnership between regional manufacturers and higher education institutions that is creating a new pipeline of highly skilled workers through apprenticeship-style education that leads to career pathways in advanced manufacturing.
Once accepted into the program, students “earn and learn” by attending classes at a Kentucky Community and Technical College location two days a week and spending 24 hours a week with a leading manufacturer for a competitively-paid work experience. By program’s end, students have earned an associate degree in Applied Science in Industrial Technology Maintenance and established good relationships with Kentucky manufacturers.
While businesses across the nation are stepping up to design and implement new work-and-learn programs, government must do its part to reform and modernize its “Registered Apprenticeship Program.” Employers across industry sectors find the current system, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor and State Apprenticeship Agencies, to be too bureaucratic and costly. I have joined my colleagues on the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion, established by President Trump to equip more Americans with the skills job creators demand, in advocating for these reforms.
With real solutions at hand for businesses, educators and government alike, there is no good reason why the skills gap should continue to plague our economy. From the president to small businesses, to educators and hard-working Americans striving for a better life, we are in this together and must stay at it until the job is done.
Emily Stover DeRocco is the director of The National Network of Business and Industry Associations.