Apprenticeship: A Prescription for Workforce Development

To many, the word “apprentice” evokes images of teenagers in Colonial America learning to make barrels, casks, and buckets alongside the local cooper, or forging iron tools for the village blacksmith.

While these jobs have been replaced by automated production lines and now only exist in very small comparison to their numbers from centuries past, the time-tested practice of apprenticeship may be seeing a rebirth in the U.S., due in large part to the shortage of skilled employees that companies need to sustain their workforce.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report released in June 2017, there were more than six million vacant jobs that American workers were unable to fill, the highest level on record. The BLS also found in a 2015 report that the country is projected to produce one million fewer technical workers than is needed over the next decade.

“The widening skills gap in the U.S. is a significant business concern, and companies – large and small – are seeing this workplace strategy that combines on-the-job training with classroom instruction as a viable solution to build a pipeline of future skilled talent,” said Lisa Bisaccia, EVP and Chief Human Resources Officer for CVS Health.

Today, CVS Health is part of a growing number of white-collar companies investing in earn-and-learn apprenticeship programs typically associated with the skilled blue-collar trades. Companies like Accenture, Alcoa, Dow, Ford, Mercy Health,, Siemens, and Zurich North America have all launched worker training programs to help address their own skills gap. These investments have helped to fuel the growth in apprenticeship in the U.S., which stood at more than 500,000 in 2016, up from 375,000 three years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However, many more programs will need to be created to fill the 5 million jobs that remain unfilled due to the nation’s skills gap.

Benefits of registered apprenticeship

CVS Health first became involved with apprenticeship in 2005 as the first employer to launch a U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship program for pharmacy technicians. Our own market studies projected we would need to hire more than 70,000 pharmacy technicians between 2014 and 2024. Through 2017, we’ve had more than 4,600 colleagues join our Registered Apprenticeship career tracks across 12 states for retail pharmacy and retail store management, making us among the most experienced and active employer-sponsors of apprenticeship programs within nontraditional occupations in the United States.

“Our apprenticeship programs provide structured training to maintain the high level of customized skills required in the pharmacy care industry and equips participants with a nationally recognized, portable credential that will help them advance their career, whether or not they decide to remain with the company,” said David Casey, VP, Workforce Strategies and Chief Diversity Officer, for CVS Health.

In building an effective apprenticeship training strategy, Casey says he and his team rely on the power of partnership, tapping into many of the 2,000 relationships the company has in communities across the country to source a consistent pipeline of apprentices. These partnerships include federal, state and local government agencies, public workforce agencies, community colleges, community-based nonprofits and faith-based organizations, who provide candidate referrals from untapped pools of talent.

That’s how CVS Health found Jennifer Castellon, who graduated from a 2016 pre-apprenticeship training program through the company’s partnership with Houston Community College. Today, Castellon works in an externship at a Houston CVS Pharmacy, and says the on-the-job training has prepared her well for the realities of pharmacy care.

“You have to be fast and resourceful. You have to stay focused, too. Our customers are sick when they come to the pharmacy and they need a different kind of attention. I can make a difference in their lives, if even for a little while.”

Given the successes so far in using apprenticeship to meet our talent needs, we are expanding our training model across seven more states and in additional fields, including pharmacy benefits management, infusion compounding pharmacy technician, and logistics, with the intent of bringing 5,000 new apprentices into the company by 2022.

Lisa Bisaccia, CVS Health’s CHRO, recommends apprenticeship training as a key investment for any company seeking to compete in the future.

“If you’re willing to think differently and long-term about your talent needs and invest in a front-end training infrastructure, then you’re going to have a positive return on investment through the career of a skilled, productive and successful employee. And that’s good for any bottom line.”