Apprenticeship Innovation: Building a Regional Network to Serve Employers and Students

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Across California, legislators, employers and educators continue to see apprenticeship as a compelling solution to the state’s workforce needs, and a key solution to a stubborn paradox: employers have a hard time finding qualified workers, yet many workers have a hard time finding suitable employment. With the seeding of numerous apprenticeship programs operating in the state, a new challenge is now forming: how to reduce confusion among employers and students with the current plethora of apprenticeship and work-based learning programs operating in the same region. 


In 2018, the Inland Empire Desert Region College Consortium (IEDRC), a group of 12 community colleges, formed a new network to serve as a go-between among colleges, the workforce system, and regional employers. The new entity – Local Apprenticeships Uniting a Network of Colleges and High Schools (LAUNCH) – is coordinating the development of programs at regional colleges, facilitating communication for employers, and clearing the way for businesses to easily find, train, and retain talent. The network is the first of its kind in California.  


Charles Henkels, the Apprenticeship Director at Norco College and one of the leaders of the new network, stated that before LAUNCH, “we recognized that we’re all working on [apprenticeship] but we’re not working together, and it’s not helping because it’s creating confusion for the users.” The IEDRC determined that they needed to put a formal structure in place in order to forge a network. Henkels stated, “This isn’t something where we can just say we’re working together. We actually needed to figure out the formal agreement.”


The consortium set out to design a regional framework that would enable all colleges to participate, starting with the formation of a system-building sub-committee charged with developing a regional contract and memorandum of understanding (MOU) to outline how colleges would participate, the benefits of joining the network, and the expectations of participation. Henkels explained that the contract allowed for the creation of a regional apprenticeship committee:


So, the same way the Department of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) recognizes our college’s own apprenticeship committee, we worked with our DAS consultant to make it so that all of our apprenticeship operations regionally would be coordinated together. The way that we phrased it is we said we wanted apprenticeship to be administered regionally and coordinated locally.


The structure they built meant that the regional apprenticeship committee could conduct actions such as serving as a liaison with DAS, applying for a federal grant, and seeking partnerships with foundations. And by signing the MOU, the colleges and districts in the region would automatically become members of the committee.


The MOU outlines how colleges will coordinate apprenticeships, including technicalities such as how AB 1809 affects tuition and what institutions need to do if they have apprentices on campus1. For Henkels and LAUNCH, the MOU enables consistency and quality across the region, and ensures clear points of contact for employers and apprentices, regardless of what campus they are working with.


While the framework of an MOU is key to regional development, generating college buy-in started with developing college-to-college relationships. For LAUNCH, buy-in did not begin at the senior administrative level. Rather, regional funding opportunities through California’s Strong Workforce program seeded the collaboration. Strong Workforce is an annual recurring investment approved by the governor and legislature in 2016 to support career technical education (CTE) in the state’s community college system. For the Inland Empire to receive regional funding, they needed to propose a project that came out of a small workgroup planning process – the type of meetings typically attended by CTE deans or faculty. It was this regional project work that enabled IEDRC to spark.


“That being said,” notes Henkels, “because it’s been so grassroots, we’re feeling the strain of not having the big leaders we need in our community to get behind this and make it happen.” They’re now looking to find additional champions to provide leadership and guide new relationships within both the education and business sectors.


In the meantime, as they work collectively, they’re taking the lessons learned across the network to generate buy-in from community leaders, and critically, potential industry partners. Their approach has changed significantly over the last two years. “We’ve found that most companies don’t know what apprenticeship is, and they can only dedicate so much time to learning about it. Trying to explain the system is like showing up with an encyclopedia and saying, let me tell you about all the things that start with the letter ‘A’.” 


They had to speak to what employers really needed: people. “What we did that cracked the nut is we took a leap of faith. We went to a local [high school] after-school program and said, if you can refer students interested in apprenticeship, we can get employers to hire them as apprentices. We were a little out on a limb, but we knew from talking with employers how big the need was.”


Henkels also connected with local economic development departments to help invite employers to an “interview day” with more than 50 college students ready to start work immediately. Eight employers conducted interviews. “None of the companies had apprenticeship agreements before that day. In fact, some of them, I hadn’t even met yet. But it tapped into what they needed.” When employers approached Henkels to indicate they wanted to hire someone, he guided them through the process of hiring them as an apprentice. “This was closer to how it’s supposed to work – where somebody can hire an apprentice and it’s not a year-and-a-half process for someone to learn the apprenticeship system.”


In this coming year, Henkels and LAUNCH plan to build out the system network. While the regional committee is now in place, questions remain on how it will serve the needs of dozens of colleges and districts engaging with both traditional and new industry sectors. Henkels envisions creating a sub-committee structure. “Inland Empire is a big geographic area with localities that are quite diverse in business needs and student populations. We’re still figuring that one out.” 


Ultimately, the structures being put in place foster sustainability. When the network applies for grant funding, it becomes easier to braid with other funding sources, and awards can be shared across the region. They can target strategically colleges, student populations, or communities. And importantly, regardless of where employers or students are in the region, and regardless of the industry sector, the apprenticeship model for these end-users looks and feels the same. For the students, LAUNCH can deliver careers. For employers, instead of just talking about the program, they can deliver a talent pipeline.


1AB 1809 allowed some apprenticeship programs to receive community college credit funding, and provided $36.5 million in one-time Proposition 98 General Fund resources to reimburse local education agencies for unfunded instructional hours in the apprenticeship program (i.e., full-time equivalent students/FTES).