When the pandemic drove school and employment online overnight, we found that, in some ways, the virtual space accommodated what we never thought it could; in others, it failed to live up to expectations. The abrupt transition created unique challenges for the 636,000 apprentices in the U.S. and the program practitioners, who were required to quickly rethink how to provide job training and hands-on experience. So, what have we learned about the virtual space’s impact on the apprenticeship model?

VIRTUAL TRAINING HAS ITS BENEFITS

Eliminates the Transportation Barrier

Doing away with the commute to school or place of business has garnered a great deal of enthusiasm for remote work, as it saves people both time and money. For apprentices, however, this isn’t just a convenient bonus. Lack of transportation is one of the main barriers to participation for low-income and rural populations and for people with disabilities, so the option to take part without traveling removes a major obstacle. It has additional positive byproducts:

  • Greater scheduling flexibility for participants, which makes apprenticeships more feasible and increases the likelihood that individuals will remain in a program (read: sustainability).
  • Greater diversity and inclusion among employer workforces as a broader cross section of individuals gain access to these programs.

A Wider Network for Employers and Career Seekers 

Through remote programs people can reach beyond their immediate geographic area to find suitable career paths and job opportunities. Likewise, employers can broaden their potential talent base. California-based EXP, which provides internships to high school students, is expanding its network of employers to include companies outside the state that can support remote work-based learning. The emphasis on telework also means employers are not limited by the number of physical desks that could be allocated to interns or apprentices.”

More Productive Learning Experiences

In a study of 16- to 18-year-olds in the U.K. and U.S. more than a third of the students found that online learning in their own private environment compelled them to be more focused, more prepared, and more proactive learners. The international human resources provider Adecco also notes that online instruction allows learners to complete courses in more digestible chunks, within their own schedule, and at their own pace.

Technology Serves a Vital Role in Training

The use of technology is now integral to many occupations, even in the “blue-collar” trades. It’s only logical that computer instruction and other high-tech approaches, such as virtual reality, would become an important component of training even before COVID made them a necessity.

In New Jersey Business Magazine Robert Lewandowski, of the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA), describes the change in his industry: “A century ago, a contractor hired a laborer for their physical strength and endurance. While our work is still physically demanding, our members are also operating ground penetrating radar, laser levels, mechanical scaffolding and more.” The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) currently trains its members in CAD (computer-aided design), BIM (building information modeling), and Accubid (an electrical project estimating solution). And where job safety is a factor, adds Mr. Lewandowski, “virtual reality has made learning safer and more realistic.”

Employers also have an advantage in online instructional programs, as apprenticeship.gov points out, in that they allow consistent training to be delivered across any number of geographic locations.

THE DOWNSIDE

In-Person Contact is Valuable – and Often Necessary

There are good reasons why occupational training typically involves being physically present on a job site. It gives an individual a better understanding of the company, its processes, its management, and its culture. It provides the opportunity to learn by observation. It allows a deeper interaction with co-workers, which can offer informal, but no less valuable, work lessons as well as networking and career advancement opportunities. And it enables two all-important components of apprenticeship: hands-on practice and face-to-face mentorship.

Quoted in Inside Higher Ed, Eric Seleznow, a senior adviser and director of Jobs for the Future's (JFF) Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning, emphasized the importance of in-person experience: “Apprentices learn to show up to work on time, how to work in teams and, in some cases, how to use machinery. They also receive coaching from a mentor, which many experts highlight as one of the key aspects of apprenticeships.”

A Less Productive Learning Experience

While a third of the students in the U.K.-U.S. survey benefited in some ways from online learning, one-half to three-quarters felt isolated when unable to interact in person with other students. They also had a hard time motivating themselves, found it difficult to focus due to at-home distractions, or felt unable to connect with their instructor or ask questions. These issues may be amplified for differently abled learners.

The Digital Divide

For students and apprentices in underserved populations, the digital divide is as much a barrier to online learning as lack of transportation is to in-person instruction. A 2020 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education “found that nationwide, 16.9 million students do not have home internet or a computer. Students of color, students from families with low incomes, and students in rural locations are far likelier than their peers to lack these essential resources.”

The lack of digital literacy compounds this problem, further reducing access to job opportunities. As determined in a study by the U.S. Department of Education, “the percentage of Black adults who are not digitally literate is twice the percentage of White adults (22 versus 11 percent), with the rate among the Hispanic population being even higher at 35 percent.... If someone is digitally illiterate, they work in an unskilled occupation and are typically laborers, which means they are earning a low wage.”

The challenges of online training extend to employers as well and include “access to technology and assuming oversight of online interactions between young people and organization and employer staff members.”

Are Remote Apprentices Actually “Working”?

"Apprenticeship is an education strategy, but it’s also fundamentally an employment strategy." – Mary Alice McCarthy, Director,

Center on Education and Skills at New America in Inside Higher Ed

The article continues, pointing out that companies “pay apprentices decent wages because they can contribute while being trained.” Understandably, it’s difficult for employers to justify paying wages for on-the-job training to people who aren’t, in fact, on the job. Employers and apprenticeship program managers must find ways for apprentices to do productive work that merits the same wages they might earn working on site.

MAKING THE MOST OF VIRTUAL LEARNING for APPRENTICES

Virtual training is clearly a good fit in sectors where remote employment has already taken hold: IT, sales, customer support, administrative, editorial, and graphics, to name a few. The job search site indeed.com shows more than 180,000 remote work positions in fields such as IT, advertising, insurance, healthcare, and more. 

In adapting to the COVID crisis apprenticeship programs have focused on occupations most compatible with a virtual approach, matching interns with employer partners who need social media and coding skills, for instance. Even where online training may not be the ideal choice students can earn industry credentials through online study. And, as mentioned, technology and digital training have found their place even in such hands-on sectors as the building trades. Practitioners can make virtual training a viable option in an even wider range of industries if they can clear some of the hurdles it presents.

Increase Digital Literacy and Access to Technology

While apprenticeship practitioners have little control over the nation’s less-than-stellar digital infrastructure, they have come up with inventive workarounds, tapping intermediaries, partners, employers, and community organizations to help provide solutions to the lack of digital access. These invaluable partners may be able to provide laptops and technical assistance, create Wi-Fi hotspots, or offer safe spaces where students can make use of existing networks.

Develop More Engaging and Effective Online Learning Experiences

Research confirms that students perform better in virtual classes with the help of content guides and technical facilitators. YouthWorks in Baltimore recruited and trained job coaches to do just that, encouraging the flexibility to create content “based on young people’s interests and needs.” One coach held virtual interview practice sessions, pairing more her outgoing students with the quieter ones, which helped overcome both personal barriers and the awkwardness of internet interaction.

Another component, as emphasized by U.S. Representative Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) is finding robust learning management systems that allow virtual breakout groups, project showcasing, training simulations, and virtual reality to ensure that apprentices can fully capitalize on the virtual training experience. And teachers and trainers need proper professional development to become fluent in these systems.

Maintain A Personal Connection in the Virtual Environment

Personal support is a crucial aspect of apprenticeships and is even more vital in remote situations.

Jackie Chapman, Managing Director of Capital City College Training (CCCT) in London, observed in a blog for global education company TES that “apprentices who have struggled say the biggest impact has been a lack of support from some employers in their development.” CCCT provided online workshops not only to help apprentices with their training but also “to support their mental health and wellbeing.” Her suggestions for employers supporting remote apprentices are also useful for program managers, coaches, and instructors:

  • Engage apprentices in on-on-one dialogues to appraise their work and address their concerns.
  • Be cognizant and supportive of apprentices’ mental and emotional well-being.
  • Connect apprentices to other employees and departments to broaden their skills and knowledge and keep them motivated.

Remote online job training may not be ideal in all circumstances or for all apprentices, but the pandemic has made it clear that technology is a resource to be mined. Apprenticeship practitioners should tap into its full potential as the pandemic lingers. They may well discover practices and pedagogies that will continue to be useful even after their programs resume in-person working and learning. In the process, today’s apprentices may become more adept at the skills they will need as part of tomorrow’s high-tech workforce.