How to Attract Employers to Youth Apprenticeship

A Three-Part Framework
Brief
A youth receives a job offer for employment.
Shift Drive/Shutterstock
March 19, 2024

Youth apprenticeship is a talent development strategy where employers hire and train young people to fill their hiring pipelines. But youth apprenticeship (YA) program leaders often find that recruiting and keeping employers is the hardest part of their work. YA programs typically understand very much why apprenticeships can benefit youth, but they are not as experienced at appealing to the motivations of the businesses that hire them. And employers’ motivations vary across regions, industries, and even within the same industry. This brief answers two key questions facing YA program leaders: What motivates employers to participate in training programs, and what strategies can be used to appeal to those motivations?

Understanding Talent Needs: What Motivates Employers to Train Apprentices?

Employers need to be convinced that investing in training will deliver value by solving workforce problems and talent needs. Unfortunately, three trends have reduced employers’ investment in early career talent development over the last several decades.

A Reliance on the College Degree to Signal Soft Skills

Since the 1980s, the American job market has undergone significant transformation due to globalization, automation, and technological advances. These shifts led to a decline in routine jobs and increased demand for positions requiring significant social interaction and soft skills. Consequently, employers began using college degrees as a way to screen candidates for social skills. The Great Recession intensified this trend, as workers accepted jobs they were overqualified for without impacting wages. One Harvard study found that in 2015 nearly 1.5 million people were working as first-line supervisors in office environments. Only about a third of them had a bachelor’s degree. But in the same year, 70 percent of posted job openings for these roles required a bachelor’s degree. Over time, this type of degree inflation has led to the rise of wages for highly educated workers, while wages have gone down for others.

A Shift to External Recruiting Rather Than Internal Training

As college enrollment has increased, employers have become less willing to train at the entry level. Employers still train, but the majority of their training investments are focused on leadership roles and internal training programs. Rather than build talent internally, they prefer to recruit qualified candidates on the labor market. One analysis found that over 60 percent of full-time job roles seeking entry-level talent required at least three years of experience.

A Loss of Key Talent Development Capabilities

Employers are increasingly outsourcing many talent functions. Research suggests that about 40 percent of U.S. companies have outsourced much or even all of their hiring processes. Additionally, a growing reliance on temporary and contract workers to fulfill specialized skill requirements has reduced internal talent development. These factors have reduced employers’ need for and capacity to train and develop talent in-house.

Employers’ Evolving Talent Needs

But things are changing. Tight labor markets tend to encourage employers to be more flexible in their hiring practices and to invest in new strategies to recruit and grow talent. There’s a new focus on hiring based on skills, rather than on degrees. And in many parts of the economy, employers are beginning to rethink the college degree, with states and large employers dropping their degree requirements, and hiring practices slowly changing.

Momentum is also growing behind apprenticeship. The number of new apprentices in the United States has grown 82 percent between 2008 and 2021. The share of young adults in the Registered Apprenticeship system has grown, too, with the number of 16 to 24-year-olds starting an apprenticeship increasing by 113 percent from 2010 to 2020. But while the rate of growth is impressive, apprenticeship remains underutilized as a talent strategy, training just 0.2 percent of the U.S. workforce. To capitalize on employers’ growing openness to new training modalities, apprenticeship leaders need to better understand and articulate how apprenticeship can address their key talent concerns. And for youth apprenticeship leaders, who face the added challenge of convincing employers to hire teens and young adults, strategies to understand and appeal to employers’ motivations around talent are especially critical.

Addressing Talent Needs: How Can YA Programs Help?

Businesses are motivated by three key priorities: They want to make a profit, they want talent to do the work that earns them that profit, and they want a reputation that helps them secure and keep both their customers and their employees. A youth apprenticeship program that keeps these motivations in mind, and has a basic understanding of how to appeal to them, will be well positioned to successfully recruit that employer.

When YA programs approach employers, they often frame their pitch with a charity mindset. Even if programs don’t consciously realize it, their underlying assumption is often that they are making a major request and can only hope the employers will agree to it out of generosity. Instead, they should approach employers with the belief that they are offering them a valuable talent solution. In other words, the people who are recruiting employers should think and act like salespeople, and there are three things any good salesperson would do to prepare for making a pitch.

Craft Messaging That Addresses Employers’ Goals

A general pitch, website, and other promotional materials should appeal to all three primary goals of employers:

  • Profit: Refer to the positive return on investment of apprenticeship;
  • Talent: Tout youth apprenticeship as a way to connect to a new talent pool as well as to train workers on exactly the skills needed; and
  • Reputation: Highlight the fact that youth apprenticeship means investing directly in the local community.

Research Employers to Target Pitches

YA programs tend to invest a lot of time in creating generic promotional materials. But to be most effective, a pitch needs to be personalized. Before reaching out, research employers to figure out which motivations are most important to them. Look at:

  • Entry-level hiring needs: See if there are open roles youth apprentices could fill;
  • Current training programs: Check for internship or apprenticeship programs that show existing internal infrastructure;
  • Culture and social responsibility: Review DEI statements or community service commitments that youth apprenticeship could help meet; and
  • Personal backgrounds of leadership: See if leaders have experiences that suggest a commitment to youth, equity, or community development.

Information like this can help YA programs make precise, compelling pitches to leadership on how these apprenticeships align with and enhance current company initiatives.

Use Sales Calls to Learn More about Employer Needs

A sales call can be used to position youth apprenticeship as a valuable talent solution, but it’s also an opportunity to more clearly understand employers’ specific needs and motivations. Recruiters should come prepared with a list of questions (see Table 1) designed to get employers talking about their talent needs.

Segmenting Employers: How Can Programs Deliver the Right Message?

Most employers that YA programs reach out to will be looking for a straightforward talent solution. But some employers may also want to address regional talent shortages or are interested in influencing education systems more broadly. We have placed employers into three big categories—client, club, and compass—in order to suggest how youth apprenticeship might be positioned to appeal to each audience.

The Client Wants to Access New Talent

The first type of employer is one that is not fully satisfied with its current talent strategy. This could be due to quality, quantity, or both. It is struggling to hire and retain qualified talent and this is hurting their ability to turn a profit. Most employers that YA programs will try to recruit will fall into the client category. We named these employers ‘clients’ because YA programs should think of them as their customers. They have an acute talent need, and business recruiters will need to describe how their YA program can meet it.

Research shows that the main reasons that employers are motivated to engage in apprenticeship boil down to quality and quantity. They need enough workers with the right skills. Apprenticeship is unique among recruitment and training strategies for the level of control it gives over the training and the duration of the experience. The things that make apprenticeship a hard sell are also its key differentiators and unique sources of value. Here are three strategies that programs can use to appeal to “client” partners:

1. Emphasize youth apprenticeship’s ability to deliver on quality and quantity.

When recruiting client employers, YA programs should focus their messaging on the benefits of apprenticeship related to talent and profit. Many employers spend significant amounts of money finding and attracting skilled applicants. For employers who struggle to find qualified talent, apprenticeship offers the ability to train to exactly the right skills, and to reach a new, younger, and often more diverse pool of talent.

For employers already reaching youth through work-based learning models like internships, youth apprenticeship can offer better value. Internships often don’t last long enough for participants to gain enough skills to generate value for the employers hosting them. Youth apprenticeships are longer term, so apprentices have a long runway to develop skills and provide a business benefit.

2. Emphasize youth apprenticeship’s ability to burnish a company’s reputation.

Many private employers want to be good corporate citizens in their communities and cultivate inclusive workplaces. YA programs should not shy away from appealing directly to these motivations initially—even if, in the long term, the hope is that employers invest in apprenticeship as a talent strategy, rather than a philanthropic effort. Employers who aren’t used to hiring 16- and 17-year-olds are frequently surprised by how quickly young people can become productive employees. YA programs can use their pre-research and questions during their sales calls to target pitches to specific employers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. They can also share publicity opportunities with participating employers. Many apprenticeship programs host “signing days” that celebrate newly hired apprentices. These events can draw many in-person attendees, as well as elected officials and news coverage.

3. Use peer pressure.

Trying out a new talent strategy is a risk; knowing that someone else in the community has already tried it and has found success is reassuring for employers to hear. YA programs report that one of the most compelling pitches is sharing stories of other local employers who have hired apprentices. But what can a brand-new program do when it doesn’t yet have these stories to tell? One of the best ways YA programs can prepare to recruit other employers is to hire youth apprentices themselves. Multiple YA programs have become apprentice employers. This helps them understand what it takes for an employer to hire and support youth apprentices. It also adds credibility to their pitch.

The Club Wants to Grow the Talent Pool in Their Region or Industry

The second type of employer is actually a group of companies that is looking to address not just their individual hiring needs, but the needs of their regional industry. The United States doesn’t have the same infrastructure as countries like Germany or Switzerland, which requires employers to be a part of industry groups. But employers in communities across the U.S. can voluntarily collaborate through chambers of commerce and industry associations, sector partnerships, and strategic youth apprenticeship initiatives.

Employers may be motivated to work together when the industry is facing a talent shortage, as seen now in education and in health care, for example. YA programs can look for clues that employers in their area are facing a shortage. Three common ones are long times to hire, high turnover, and talent poaching (when employers are mostly hiring from each other, rather than from a new source of talent). Recruiters can listen for these signs during their sales calls with employers. If multiple employers in a region are struggling with these issues for the same roles, there might be an opportunity to help them work together as a “club” to grow the local talent pool for their industry. YA program leaders can recruit club employers by sharing how apprenticeship is a good strategy for dealing with regional talent shortages. Here are three ways to recruit “club” employers:

1. Articulate the benefits of collaboration.

There are two main ways collaboration benefits employers: more talent for everyone and more sustainable programs. If a single employer starts training youth apprentices, it may worry that those workers will leave to competitor firms after their apprenticeship. But, if multiple employers hire and train apprentices, the pool of skilled talent grows. Imagine a community with several employers that have all set up their own project manager apprenticeships. Each company has trained its apprentices on the project management software and processes that it uses. If these project managers move to other companies, they will need significant retraining to learn new software and tools. The employers could have avoided this by collaborating on a joint youth apprenticeship and designing some cross-training into the program, either as on-the-job training or related technical instruction (RTI). By working together to design apprenticeships, employers can ensure that apprentices are prepared for roles across the industry, which will decrease time to productivity for future hires.

The other big benefit of collaboration is program sustainability. A single employer’s demand for new apprentices is not the same year after year. If it goes several years without hiring new apprentices, then the education provider that offers the RTI may struggle to maintain that program. When the employer needs new apprentices, it could find that the program has been downsized or ended. If multiple employers have teamed up, demand for apprenticeship will be more steady from year to year, allowing education and training providers to keep their programs going.

2. Help employers define shared talent needs.

When a YA program hears from multiple employers that there is a shared talent need, it can provide value by supporting those employers in a structured process for creating an apprenticeship that meets each employer’s needs. YA programs can help employers figure out which job roles they have in common. This can take some time, since job titles and seniority levels can vary from company to company. Once a group of employers is confident that it understands what their shared roles are, they can define the shared skills, competencies, and credentials needed for those roles. It is natural for some variation to exist across companies. To create a shared youth apprenticeship it’s enough to reach 80 percent agreement to shape the apprenticeship and leave the rest up to employer-specific training needs.

3. Take advantage of employer collaboratives.

A YA program can provide value to employers by seeing if there are opportunities to build on existing initiatives rather than start something from scratch. When working with a club of employers, they can map out their communities’ existing employer groups. These include chambers of commerce, industry associations, and professional associations. Research these groups and see if any have work groups focused on talent. Figure out how active they are. Look for formal employer cooperation, such as programs found through Talent Pipeline Management and Next Gen Sector Partnerships. Both of these are structured methods for working with groups of employers around talent. If either of these initiatives are underway, then employers in your community might already be forming a club and working on talent together.

The Compass Wants to Guide Public Investments to Align with Industry Needs

The third type of employer in this framework we’ve termed the compass because it is interested in guiding public investment in education and training so these align with industry needs.

Though employers have long lamented young people’s lack of workplace skills and pressed schools for better student preparation, they lack an effective way to shape curriculum and public education. Youth apprenticeship leaders can appeal to “compass” employers by sharing how apprenticeship can offer a connection between employers and educators that leads to real change. There are three ways to appeal to employers who are looking to play leadership roles.

1. Share how employers influence education programs via apprenticeship.

YA programs give employers a mechanism to influence what’s being taught in classrooms. High school and community college teachers, even Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers, have few opportunities to hear directly from employers. In fast-changing industries this leads to curricula that can quickly fall out of date. Youth apprenticeship provides multiple opportunities for employers to give feedback on curricula and programs. During program design, they can share what courses and certificate programs are most relevant. And once an apprenticeship is up and running, employers get a very clear view on the skills an apprentice is learning in the classroom. This allows them to give feedback to school partners if those skills become misaligned with what is needed on the job.

2. Connect with industry advisory boards.

Every CTE program is required to convene an industry advisory board. Many of these boards struggle to recruit actual employers. A YA program can provide value to employers by connecting them to the advisory boards and industry councils related to their apprenticeships. Because these employers are currently employing apprentices, their feedback will carry more weight with educators. Some communities have been able to create joint advisory board meetings with high school and community college CTE programs. This can save employers time and give them a better understanding of the CTE programs being offered in their community.

3. Build employer leadership into your program.

YA programs can give employers formal roles by establishing employer advisory boards. These boards can give feedback on program quality. They can also give direction on the occupations a YA program is offering, share which programs need to be scaled up or scaled down, and say which new occupations they want to see included.

Conclusion

Though apprenticeships are expanding, they engage just a fraction of the workforce. Tight labor markets and shifting views on training talent present opportunities to increase the reach of youth apprenticeships. Understanding what talent challenges employers face lets programs tailor their recruitment strategies. Programs that make a compelling case rooted in employers’ motivations will be best positioned to expand youth apprenticeship opportunities.

It’s worth acknowledging that recruiting employers is only part of the challenge. Once an employer is interested or tentatively on board, there’s more work for a YA program to do to help that employer successfully train youth apprentices and retain them as an apprentice employer. They should be prepared to transition employers from their ‘sales’ team over to ‘customer success’ and support employers through any changes they may need to make to hire youth apprentices. They can create employer handbooks, checklists, and trainings to support employers in making these changes.

The success of youth apprenticeships hinges on their value to employers. If YA programs can start thinking like businesses, they will be more successful in getting employers to say yes to youth apprenticeship.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA) funders for their generous support of this research. PAYA is supported by funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Carnegie Corporation of New York; JP Morgan Chase & Co.; Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation; Siemens Foundation; Smidt Foundation; and the Walton Family Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of these foundations.