I launched the nation’s first Customer Experience apprenticeship back in 2017 and it’s proven to be a competitive advantage for us that contributes to the bottom line.
This isn’t something I want to keep as ‘secret sauce’ — in fact, my vision is to help create a world where 10% of all the workforce are apprentices.
So why are small businesses like mine hiring apprentices?
- Hire someone full-time at a low cost.
- Invest in them with classes, on the job training, and mentorship.
- They learn theory, get hands-on application, and acquire a new skill.
- They use their skills to generate revenue or take on higher-cost work.
- You pay them a bit more, they make you a lot more.
- You retain them because you gave them a shot no one else did.
Small businesses across the country are hiring apprentices because it benefits your bottom line.
And if you take on apprentices from an untapped population, you’re also providing a social good.
We work with opportunity youth, 18 to 24-year-olds disconnected from work and school.
This is exactly the model we use at Flow as a competitive advantage to increase margins and retention
… and we love the fact that it changes the lives of those in need.
Here are the steps I recommend you take to start your apprenticeship.
Step 1: Start With “Why.” What Problem Do You Want to Solve?
Everyone’s heard of Simon Sinek’s “start with why” and that’s the best I could give you when thinking about why you want to create an apprenticeship.
Flow’s story starts in 2016 after I exited the wealth management business I founded.
I wanted to figure out what was next. I’m a firm believer in starting with why, but I was struggling to figure it out because my experiences and skills were vast.
It wasn’t until I read Bold by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler where they posed this question that fundamentally opened my eyes to what would become my next:
“If you want to become a billionaire, you have to solve a billion-person problem.”
I wasn’t trying to be a billionaire, but what did inspire me is finding a problem I wanted to solve. For 20 years, I was helping low-income youth go to college on scholarships. But I wasn’t doing anything for the kids that were low income and not making it into college, and there were way more of these kids.
It was an issue that troubled me because I knew their economic opportunities were not going to be good. People with degrees don’t make more because they’re smarter, it’s because the jobs that are available to people without college degrees are going away. Thus, those jobs continue to make less and less money.
Related: The Grand Plan
I knew the data, knew the problem, and after working with this problem, knew that finding a good job wasn’t an aptitude or work ethic issue.
I looked at the problem and thought:
There’s got to be a way to tap into opportunity youth to train them and give them skills so they can be productive in a thriving job.
Once I found the why or the purpose that inspired me, I quickly worked to find a viable solution.
Step 2: Make an Apprenticeship Core to Your Business’s Purpose
Employees today say they want to work for a company with a purpose. In fact, Shawn Achor’s article in the Harvard Business Review, says that “9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work.”
I learned about apprenticeships in the finance world because the Swiss are famous for their great banking systems.
However, what many do not know is one of the main reasons they are so phenomenal is because they have apprenticeships for youth to go into banking. It’s also standard for some big names like Schwab, Merrill Lynch, and Fidelity. I even created one in my wealth management firm.
I knew the apprenticeship model worked, and I knew low-income youth could be trained and taught, so I brought both worlds together.
Even though apprenticeships are not specifically designed for the underserved, I designed Flow’s apprenticeship specifically with opportunity youth in mind – for those that don’t have educational opportunities and are either stuck in low paying jobs or don’t have a job at all.
I had a population I wanted to help and a model I knew worked, so I started exploring different ways I could turn both into a business. After testing a bunch of different models, I found the best avenue was to create a business where the apprenticeship was a training program for a portion of our workforce.
So I knew why the business existed, its fundamental “why”: to create apprenticeships for low-income youth.
Step 3: Create a Business Model to Fund Your Apprenticeship Program
I knew my business’s purpose, but I needed to figure out, “What does the business do?”
I looked at the Colorado Pipeline Report to identify the most in-demand jobs in the economy that are unfulfilled and what the requirements are to get the jobs done. In the top ten were:
- Tech sales
- Digital marketing
Not everyone wants to be a coder or go into sales.
Digital marketing resonated with me because there is a huge demand, and it doesn’t require a degree to be successful. In fact, nobody cares what school you went to in digital marketing as long as you can deliver results.
I realized the apprenticeship needed to be about digital marketing, but I still needed to figure out what the business was going to do. I needed something easy to execute, that had good market demand, and was easy for everyone to learn.
I identified a gap in the market with US-based live chat providers and customer support. I saw a need for highly skilled live chat agents who could deal with complex products and services to generate more leads and sales thanks to high-level training in sales.
Flow Marketing was officially born.
Flow focuses explicitly on lead generation and customer support using live chat and SMS agents who are employed full-time. The cash flow we generate is used to fund and train apprentices with valuable digital marketing skills to keep our pipeline full.
We specifically chose to make our apprenticeships about content marketing because we hired great writers and content marketing made the most sense for them.
Step 4: Understand The Risks With Apprenticeships
The number one thing you will face with opportunity youth apprenticeships is their life situations. Many have a challenging life, which is why they need this apprenticeship and why they’ll work hard and be motivated.
But life for them is tough.
They may be living on a friend’s couch, as one of my apprentices did. They may have mental health issues, as two of my apprentices have had. They may have a family who has been estranged.
Know that you do not need to be an expert in solving their circumstances, but you do need to provide support with nonprofits that can help.
Reach out to your nonprofit community to see who can help should your apprentices run into life challenges.
Step 5: Create a Skills-Based Curriculum For Your Apprentices
Flow focuses on a skills-based content marketing curriculum in the apprenticeships.
That way, when our apprentices complete the program, they will be successful in high-demand content marketing jobs.
To create the curriculum, we looked at job descriptions for content marketing specialists and reverse engineered what skills and experience our apprentices needed.
Skills-based hiring is crucial because it opens up your labor pool.
You lose a lot of great candidates when you hire on education and experience. That’s a mistake.
When people can evaluate whether a job is a good fit based on their skills rather than the education and experience, you open your job up to a more qualified labor pool.
Thus, Flow’s skills-based apprenticeship program is two years long, and balances theory and experience learning so they can gain vital soft and hard skills:
- Quarter 1 – Company and Chat Assimilation
- Quarter 2 – Scorecard and Client Reporting
- Quarter 3 – Design Pickle and Graphic Management
- Quarter 4 – Distribution and Website Management
- Quarter 1 – Project Management
- Quarter 2 – Writing Skills and Content Marketing Course
- Quarter 3 – Flow Blog Editorial Work
- Quarter 4 – AMA Curriculum and Flow Blog Editorial Work
Flow uses online classes from the American Marketing Association curriculum on LinkedIn Learning (which is free to members of public libraries).
After completing the program and testing, they earn a Content Marketing Specialist certification from the American Marketing Association.
But just because someone learns theory doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at what they do or have acquired a skill, which is why all our apprentices must get hands-on application until they’ve mastered the skills.
Step 6: Hold Your Apprentices Accountable and Measure Performance
We hold all our apprentices to complete Flow’s program in two years. They have to:
- Stay on track with their apprenticeship milestones
- Perform well in their full time live chat jobs
- Have to demonstrate they are acquiring content marketing skills
- Demonstrate mastery during hands-on application of their skills
To make sure our apprentices are on-track, each apprentice works out of a project that has all their curriculum broken down into sections, tasks, and milestones with due dates.
That way, we can easily see what percentage of the project is complete.
Each week, we performance manage to measure what percentage of our apprentices are on or off track, and we always aim for 100% on-track.
If they get off-track, then they’re failing their curriculum and failing at their job.
To help hold our apprentices accountable and help them get back on course, each has a boss to manage their work performance and a mentor to guide them in work and life.
Every apprentice is on the hook to step up their game because we are making a big investment in their success.
I’m a firm believer that if someone is given something for free, they will never value it. But if they contribute towards their success, they’ll work harder for it, and they’ll reach their goals faster.
Thus, each apprentice has some skin in the game.
All their mentorship and course work is done outside of their eight-hour workday, and it’s non-compensated.
Not only does it give them grit, but it also lowers the cost of the program and makes their skills more profitable. And before they earn any pay increases, they must show that they’ve mastered a skill over a certain amount of time.
Step 7: Create a Plan For Your Graduates
Once our apprentices graduate, we consider three options (in priority):
- Hire them as a content marketing specialist for Flow
- Hire them in a different role at Flow
- Help them get placed with a new company
At Flow, our goal is to retain all of our apprentices. To do that, we have to be able to provide them with jobs that match what they’ve done in their apprenticeship.
If there isn’t an available fit for the business, Flow will actively look for companies that would like to hire them. In fact, there is currently a pipeline of companies who are raising their hand, saying they would happily hire our graduates.
In addition to landing a full-time job, our apprentices also earn $40,000 a year at the time of completion.
Step 8: Learn From My Mistakes
To fast track your apprenticeship, don’t make these mistakes I made.
Curate Your Educational Content
When I needed to design a curriculum, I went looking for a curriculum designer. I went through three different consultants, none of whom could wrap their head around what I was creating because they were too focused on theory. They couldn’t translate the theory into hands-on skills because they didn’t understand my business model.
I wasted a lot of time and money hiring curriculum designers. Instead, I found practical theory online for free instead of creating instruction. Many people would say they don’t have the bandwidth to develop the instruction.
Realize you don’t need to create your original curriculum. The instruction is already out there. You just need to curate it. In other words, don’t hire a curriculum designer or try to create educational content yourself.
Partner With The Right Non-Profit
There are nonprofits who are trying to expand the apprenticeship movement. At first, I partnered with CareerWise Colorado, but soon found the business case didn’t make sense for a couple of reasons:
- Flow required full-time apprentices, and CareerWise only offered part-time
- CareerWise charged $15k/year/apprentice which is cost-prohibitive for our model
For both reasons, I found the partnership to be a non-starter.
Thus, if you are going to partner with a nonprofit, make sure you analyze the cost-benefit. Typically it makes sense if you’re already big. But if you’re small, the benefit isn’t there. You need to do it on your own with the steps laid out in this article.
Create Your Apprenticeship and Reach Out if You Need Help
Apprentices are, first and foremost, an economic decision then a social decision — you have to figure out whether or not they make sense for your business needs.
If you can hire low-cost labor, train them to be highly productive, and give them gradual pay increases and make more profit, then you have a win-win scenario.
If there are jobs in your company that you know don’t require a college degree, but rather require the skills, then an apprenticeship could be right for that entry-level position.
The entry-level position that you’re currently hiring somebody out of college for and paying them $40K to 50K a year.
Instead, you could cut that in half, add on top of it mentoring and management, a curriculum, and you’ll still be paying less.
In fact, you would also focus on skill development and productivity, which is the number one thing that’s going to generate more profit for you.
Apprenticeships only make sense if you have the means to do it. But I’m here to tell you that the economics make a lot of sense if you design it the way I’ve shown you and you translate that into your business model.
That’s why I encourage you to see if you can design one and if I can help you, then reach out. I’m happy to help.