Virtual apprenticeships could be a boon to the future, some experts say. They would open up opportunities for those with disabilities that make working in an office difficult, or provide greater access to those in areas with a dearth of apprenticeship options.
But virtual options could lack the important pieces of apprenticeships that make them successful, others say.
Nationally, registered apprenticeships require two components: classroom learning and on-the-job training with a mentor. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, both pieces had to scramble to move online.
"This is an area where we’re working with the [U.S. Department of Labor] to show that our sector, like many other nontraditional sectors, can have different operating styles," said Jennifer Carlson, executive director and co-founder of Apprenti, a tech apprenticeship program. "This will be a great proof point to show that people are still able to do well."
None of the nearly 1,000 apprentices in the Apprenti program have been laid off or furloughed, according to Carlson. The program quickly pivoted to online education for the learning requirements, and it is working with companies to help apprentices continue their on-the-job training at home.
Other companies are getting into the virtual apprenticeship market, as well. Catalyte, which offers information technology apprenticeships, is pivoting its programming to be virtual, including the mentorship piece, according to Stephen Yadzinski, the acting general manager for JFFLabs. Transfr VR is creating opportunities for virtual reality-based apprenticeships in manufacturing. Interplay Learning provides online training for jobs in the skilled trades.
While some of these companies have been working on these developments for years, Yadzinski is seeing a flood of interest now given the pandemic.
"We expect to see a huge range of innovations to support remote learning," he said. "We also think this will permanently change the digital footprint of apprenticeships."
But some aren't so sure that virtual apprenticeships would work for the vast majority of industries.
Much of the apprenticeship experience is best done in person, said Eric Seleznow, a senior adviser and director of Jobs for the Future's Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning. 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. Some of this can be completed online, but with the possibility that it would not be done as well without in-person interaction.
It's also not clear the Labor Department would allow mostly virtual or 100 percent virtual apprenticeships at scale, Seleznow said. When colleges began shutting down campuses due to COVID-19, the department issued guidance that said classroom learning could be done using distance learning technology for safety, but it didn't speak to on-the-job training.
The department did not provide an interview or comments before this article's deadline.
Seleznow can envision programs where training is split between virtual and in-person experiences. Virtual training is also risk-free, which could be helpful in trades where apprentices face some risk of injury or could make mistakes that negatively impact others, he said. But companies also pay apprentices decent wages because they can contribute while being trained on the job, and a virtual reality training experience would take that away.
"I don’t know whether companies see the value of paying someone $15 per hour without production on the job," he said.
While Yadzinski sees the challenges that virtual apprenticeships raise, he doesn't think their progress is going to move backward.
"I think industries are going to adapt," he said. "I think there are many roles in numerous industries where remote roles would be permanent in an evolution of business."
Other experts emphasize that virtual apprenticeships need to be held to the same standards as traditional apprenticeships.
"Apprenticeship is an education strategy, but it’s also fundamentally an employment strategy," said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America. "The virtual strategy has to be for a real job," meaning virtual apprenticeships should come with the same good wages and W-2 status as in-person options.
Virtual apprenticeships could broaden access, but they would have to be done right.
"I don’t think it’s as easy as, 'OK, you were going to do this in the workplace and now you’ll do it at home and it’s a better fit,'" said Taylor White, a senior policy adviser for K-12 education and workforce at New America. "It would be naïve for us to assume that the transition is so easy."
Virtual apprenticeships would require technological supports to truly broaden access, she said. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies found that about 32 million people aged 16 and up lack digital literacy skills, according to Lul Tesfai, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Education and Skills at New America.
"Do people have the skills to access online learning platforms?" Tesfai said. "For those that don’t, it’s really hard to build digital literacy in a remote environment."