PHILADELPHIA — A couple of years ago, Kevin Joyner’s life was a maelstrom of poor grades, school fights and a troubled home environment in a distressed neighborhood.
Today, the 20-year-old is back in school as a computer support apprentice, and his days are a whirlwind of a different sort — setting up laptops for students and teachers, replacing faulty hardware and fixing classroom projectors.
Even more impressive is that the high school graduate is near the top of his cohort of paid apprentices and on track to earn a starting salary of $35,000 to $50,000 as a computer technician when he completes the program in two years.
“I don’t learn from books,” says lanky, soft-spoken Joyner, who sports ear piercings and tattooed arms. “I have to see it. I like learning and doing at the same time.”
Joyner and the Philadelphia school district program that employs him are part of a revival of sorts for apprenticeships, which were prevalent in trades such as construction and manufacturing before a drop-off that began in the 1980s was amplified by the 2007 to 2009 recession. Blame factory automation, the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs and the decline of unions, which spearheaded many apprenticeships.
But the economic recovery has at least partly replenished training budgets, and a much-lamented “skills gap” has employers struggling to hire skilled workers and willing to try new strategies, or revert to time-tested ones, to find them. Apprenticeships are blossoming again in manufacturing and construction and spreading to less traditional sectors grappling with labor shortages as Baby Boomers retire, including information technology, health care, even white-collar bastions such as insurance.
“We want to diversify," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview. "Apprenticeships have applicability to every sector of the economy." They also can be appealing alternatives to four-year colleges that typically leave graduates with a mountain of debt and, in many cases, no clear career path, he says.
"I call it the other college, except without the debt," Perez says.
The number of apprentices registered by Labor or states rose by 27,000 to nearly 450,000 in the fiscal year ending last September, and it’s up by nearly 100,000 since bottoming out in 2011, according to the Labor Department. Estimates show a similar number of unregistered apprentices across the country.
In September, the Labor Department awarded $175 million to 46 colleges, non-profits and others to train and hire 34,000 apprentices over the next five years, helping meet the Obama Administration’s goal of doubling the number of apprenticeships between 2014 and 2019. Another $90 million is being allocated to states and non-profits to market the programs locally.
Apprentices typically receive a blend of classroom instruction, often at a community college or trade school, and on-the-job training from mentors. Tuition is usually covered by the employer or a grant. Apprentices can earn as much as $15 an hour or more and in many cases are guaranteed a job with an average $50,000 starting salary. Proponents say the programs, which are common among European high school students, can serve as new gateways to middle-class jobs, supplanting many of those erased by offshoring or the recession.
“We know this is the best way to learn a specific skill,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce.
The Philadelphia school district program that employs Joyner, called the Urban Technology Project, began in 2005 as an expansion of an after-hours computer club at a school with a 40% dropout rate.
“We’re targeting disconnected youth,” says Edison Freire, who co-founded and leads the program, which mostly serves minorities from disadvantaged upbringings. “We’re trying to create opportunities” for 18-to-24-year-olds besides retail and fast food jobs.
High school graduates complete a one-year pre-apprenticeship in computer support at Philadelphia schools, receiving a $12,100 stipend and a $5,730 subsidy for college classes. They move on to a two-year apprenticeship in the schools or, in some cases with a local employer, that pays about $25,000 a year. The program — funded by the school district, city agencies and non-profits — also helps participants earn computer certifications. Thirty-eight of its 53 graduates have been hired by the school district or local employers.
In an era of skimpy education funding, the schools also benefit. This year, 41 apprentices and pre-apprentices are helping just eight professional technicians serve more than 200 schools, shaving computer repair intervals from weeks to a couple of days, says Melanie Harris, the district's chief Information officer.
The city of Philadelphia plans to use part of its $2.9 million grant from Labor to expand the apprenticeships to include software development, networking and cybersecurity, addressing the region's shortage of technology workers. In the fourth quarter, local employers struggled to fill 10,400 IT openings, according to city workforce agency Philadelphia Works, which helps finance the program.
Joyner officially is a pre-apprentice who’s still learning the ropes, but he performs much the same work as an apprentice at the Science Leadership Academy, where all 500 students and 24 teachers have laptops. Earlier this month, he toiled in a small workshop in a corner of a technology classroom beside apprentice Stephen Jones, setting up a laptop for a student and delicately reinstalling the motherboard and hard drive of a newly repaired computer.
“He was like a sponge,” says Marcie Hull, Joyner’s mentor and a technology teacher. “Anything I threw at him, he could do it.”
Joyner learned how to tinker with computers by watching online videos. He eventually wants to work in cybersecurity, adding, “I feel like it’s something that’s only going to be growing.”
Mentors sometimes gently prod apprentices as they go through their paces. As Emma Ortiz, 26, copied files onto a new computer for a school district employee, Marie Levine, a technical support engineer, said, ”Did you do all his files … and his printers?”
Ortiz, who moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico to earn a computer science degree, spent a year in college but couldn’t find a job to pay her bills or $28,000 student debt until she began the apprenticeship program. “I was about to go back to Puerto Rico,” she says.
Philadelphia-based Springboard Media, which sells and repairs Apple products, has hired four of the school district's apprentices. “The kids in the program don’t have the same sense of entitlement I’ve seen” from college graduates who expect higher salaries, Springboard President Everett Katzen says. “They’re more, ‘I want to work hard and learn — point me in the right direction.’”
Most U.S. apprenticeships aren't as rigorous as European programs, which emphasize precise learning modules, even in the workplace, Georgetown's Carnevale says. In the U.S., "It's more casual, more experiential — apprenticeship lite," he says, comparing many to internships. Yet he says they still bridge gaps that have many community colleges turning out graduates who don’t have the skills to meet local employers’ needs.
In Lebanon, N.H., for example, a 15-month-long apprenticeship program at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system custom trains pharmacy technicians, medical assistants and medical coders for its workplace.
“We take them right to our classes and teach them our processes,” instilling “a sense of engagement to our mission,” says Sarah Currier, the health system’s director of workforce development. “They know the people, the machines.” Newly hired medical workers from other hospitals often don’t have “the same level of competence.”
Dartmouth-Hitchcock began the program in 2014 because of a perennial struggle to hire coders — who translate medical procedures into codes for insurance — in a rural area with a shrinking population but a growing clientele of older residents. “We see this as way to build a sustainable workforce.” Currier says.
The 15-month-long apprenticeship includes three months of classroom instruction, has turned out about 100 employees and pays $14.50 to $19 an hour, some of which is funded by a Labor grant. Many participants were previously unemployed or underemployed.
Apprentices are even making their way into buttoned-down fields such as insurance. In January, Swiss commercial insurance firm Zurich, another federal grantee, began what it says is a first- of-its- kind program to place 25 people a year into two-year apprenticeships in claims adjustment and underwriting through 2020, following the model it uses in Switzerland. Apprentices split their weeks into working at Zurich’s Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters and taking insurance and other classes toward an Associates degree at Harper College.
“Believe it or not, not everyone grows up wanting to go into insurance,” Zurich’s North American CEO Mike Foley says wryly. “We think this may create a different talent pool” and train apprentices “in the Zurich way of doing business.”
Dane Lyons, 37, who was logging 55-hour weeks as a car salesman, signed up for the program to spend more time with his two young boys and secure a more consistent income stream. He earns $30,000 as an apprentice and will start at $40,000 when he graduates.
“I’m getting an education, Zurich is paying for that, and I’m getting experience working,” he says. “It’s an incredible deal.”