A CVS store in Wilson. CVS employs 1,200 apprentices in North Carolina through their pharmacy technician program. Christian Green / Carolina Public Press.

Apprenticeships registered with the state are designed to marry classroom knowledge with valuable on-the-job experience for trainees in industries throughout North Carolina, but a data analysis shows a handful of employers dominate the state’s apprenticeship program. 

Last year, the ApprenticeshipNC program, the state’s oversight organization for apprenticeships, ushered more than 12,000 North Carolina students through job-training experiences designed to advance their careers, but a Carolina Public Press analysis shows nearly half of the program’s participants worked for only three employers — the N.C. National Guard, the Fort Bragg Education Center and CVS Health. 

Despite being housed in the Community Colleges System offices, an estimated majority of apprenticeships are not run in conjunction with a local community college. Instead, they operate “in-house” either by the employer or by a third party to provide the educational component required by the U.S. Department of Labor for any registered apprenticeship.

An employer-driven system

The exact number of apprenticeships involving a community college is difficult to decipher because the data is self-reported by employers, and ApprenticeshipNC does not track which employers choose to involve a community college in their apprenticeships. The organization also does not track outcomes after apprentices either complete their program or leave without finishing.  

“We collect only data that is required to not put a burden on the employer,” said Sharon Gladwell, communications director for ApprenticeshipNC. “The employer provides us with company information and how many apprentices that they want to register. Therefore, the number of apprentices is determined by how many the company requests to register.”

The program expanded rapidly after the N.C. General Assembly moved ApprenticeshipNC from the Department of Commerce to exist under the umbrella of the Community College System in 2017. The number of active apprentices more than doubled from 5,886 in June 2017 to more than 12,000 in June 2020, according to ApprenticeshipNC’s 2019-20 annual report. 

Though these in-house apprenticeships are required to register with ApprenticeshipNC and abide by Department of Labor guidelines, they are generally shorter and less structured than those run in conjunction with community colleges. 

ApprenticeshipNC data showed three employers — the N.C. National Guard, the Fort Bragg Education Center and CVS Health — employ an estimated 5,750 out of North Carolina’s roughly 12,000 active apprentices.

Like many other large employers, the N.C. National Guard and CVS Health host multiple apprenticeship programs in the state.

With regard to specific programs, the National Guard’s Homeland Security specialist apprenticeship program had more than 1,700 apprentices listed in June 2020, and CVS reported 1,200 apprentices enrolled in a pharmacy technician program. 

The next-largest program, a powerline technician apprenticeship hosted by Pike Electric, is a distant third, with around 400 active participants listed as of June 2020. In the energy/utility sector, the top three employers make up 60% of all energy apprenticeships. 

Apprentices by sector in North Carolina. Courtesy ApprenticeshipNC 2019-2020 Annual Report.

Even the information technology sector, which makes up only 4% of all apprenticeships, is dominated by two large firms, Charter and Time Warner, which together account for 88% of all IT apprentices. 

The high number of apprenticeships in a handful of employers is a product of an employer-driven system, said Kathryn Castelloes, director of ApprenticeshipNC.

“Ultimately, companies are coming to us for apprentices,” she said. “We don’t say, ‘Well, we really need to focus on smaller companies right now. So, we’ll get to you later.’ This is just the way it is right now.”’

The ApprenticeshipNC program pairs an employer that approaches the program with a consultant who helps determine how to establish a program that meets Department of Labor regulations. 

Mark D’Amico, a professor of higher education at UNC Charlotte and a former president of The Council for the Study of Community Colleges, said apprenticeships run solely by the employer and ones run in conjunction with community colleges can offer different outcomes for the trainee. 

“When the arrangement is such that the education and technical instruction is taking place within the community college, it’s giving the apprentices even more opportunity,” D’Amico said.

“They get employment and job training, but they are also earning credits and certifications, maybe even an associate’s degree that they can carry forward. … That’s setting them up to continue their training and education down the road.” 

D’Amico calls this the “no dead-end model” because, rather than training for a specific job and ending the training there, community college partnerships allow apprentices to earn credits that can then be applied toward a bachelor’s degree or toward further work training that would allow the apprentice to progress and rise within the workplace. 

“The no-dead-end mindset in my opinion is critical when it comes to workforce education,” D’Amico said. “Yes, apprenticeships are deeply connected to businesses, but they’re about the apprentices also. And when we talk about investing in individuals, we’re not talking about the short term here. ” 

Apprenticeships in conjunction with community colleges may also enable smaller employers to hire trainees. When a school takes responsibility for the educational curriculum and for structuring the on-the-job training, smaller employers can spend fewer resources developing and maintaining a program. 

Job training investment in an employee can be at tension with an employer’s bottom line, according to Arne Kalleberg, professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill who studies labor, organizations and how society and the economy interact.

Job training is just one example of how the employee/employer relationship continues to change over time, he said. 

“I think apprenticeships are a bit of a microcosm of the larger story of job training,” Kalleberg said.

“There has been a rupture of the psychological contract between employers and employees. Employment has become much more of a transactional kind of relationship and, as a result, employers no longer felt that they could make long-term commitments to workers. So, there’s been a long-term decline in employer-provided training and employee investment over time.”

Where they work

North Carolina, like the United States as a whole, has seen a surge in the number of registered apprenticeships over the past five years, though that trend was hampered in the past year by the pandemic. 

Nationally, a small minority of large employers tend to be major drivers of employment. According to over two decades of data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, businesses with more than 250 employees make up less than 1% of all businesses in the country, but since 1997 they have accounted for over 50% of all employment in the U.S. 

Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees make up nearly 95% of all firms in the U.S., and they employ roughly a quarter of all workers. 

Though large employers tend to account for a majority of employment in the country, the distribution is more exaggerated within North Carolina apprenticeships. Based on data provided by ApprenticeshipNC, businesses with more than 200 employees make up the largest share of employers with 39% of the total firms in the state. 

Small businesses, defined as those with fewer than 50 employees, and medium-sized companies, with between 50 and 200 employees, make up roughly one-third of the total apprenticeships each. 

Apprenticeship data in North Carolina. Christian Green / Carolina Public Press.

Though firm sizes are roughly evenly distributed, the number of apprentices they account for are not. Small businesses employ only 5% of apprentices while businesses with more than 200 employees account for 85% of all apprentices in the state. 

Castelloes said the size distribution was a product of the employer-driven apprenticeship model. Larger employers will have more need for apprentices and more positions to fill, so it makes sense for them to drive the apprenticeship model just as they drive traditional employment. 

“I can’t emphasize enough how employer-driven apprenticeships are,” she said. “And if I’m a small employer, I can only employ so many people. I can’t have the same number of apprentices as a CVS, because I just don’t even have that many employees.”

Economist Mike Walden said some of the reason for the skew may be that larger employers are more easily able to bear the cost of training apprentices compared with very small employers. 

“This might be a case where scale is important,” Walden said. “There are some costs to the sponsor and the employers just to host an apprenticeship program. In economics, we have this concept called fixed costs, which is a cost you pay regardless of your size or scale. And it may be that the fixed costs are such that only the companies with more employment find it financially feasible for them to partake in this.”

Walden’s perspective is in line with several academic studies that have suggested that larger businesses may be able to more efficiently train apprentices and that they are less burdened by fixed costs.

Meeting needs?

Apprenticeships can be valuable mechanisms for preparing a state’s workforce for high-demand positions, according to some people working with the ApprenticeshipNC program. 

For example, North Carolina has a documented lack of skilled nurses and nursing assistants, especially in rural areas, and there is a need to train more within the state. 

According to the 2019-20 ApprenticeshipNC report, 14% of all apprenticeships exist within the health care industry. But 90% of the approximately 1,300 health care apprentices in the state are participating in the pharmacy technician program through CVS Health. Only 29 apprentices were listed as training for a nursing or personal care position. 

Sometimes apprenticeships are designed to help an employee gain recognition for skills already attained in training. 

The National Guard partners with ApprenticeshipNC so that guard members can receive the Department of Labor journeyworker certification for skills that they often already learned as part of their military training, said Maj. Matthew Boyle, a spokesperson for the N.C. National Guard, said. 

“These are helping them go from duty to employment,” Boyle said. “In many cases, they already have most of the skills needed from their training, so this program lets them knock out a class, obtain their certification and get hired.” 

Public safety is the largest sector of apprenticeships, accounting for nearly one-third of all active apprentices, and guardsmen make up 75% of the sector participation.

Many North Carolina guard members are either military police or infantry personnel, so their training closely aligns with the skills needed for the security specialist certification. Boyle also said he suspects this drives the high number of Homeland Security specialists. Often, these members are hired as security personnel who work at banks or live venues. 

While pathways for additional certifications and education for apprentices have values, said Maureen Little, former vice president of economic development in the Community College Systems Office, the apprenticeship program structure ultimately comes down to what an employer decides. 

“When there can be additional certifications, diplomas or degrees that are awarded along with the journeyworker certificate, we’re going to encourage the employer to look at including those for their apprenticeship program,” she said. 

D’Amico believes this is a unique moment of growth and momentum for apprenticeships in North Carolina. 

“But what’s going to happen with this momentum over the next two, three, five, seven years?,” D’Amico said.

“I think it’s going to be interesting to watch and see how these numbers might change. Maybe we will see some shift … but I think a balancing out of numbers is probably unlikely if we have large employers or organizations that are going in like this.” 

Apprenticeships in North Carolina. Christian Green / Carolina Public Press

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Christian Green is the lead Carolina Public Press contributing writer reporting on healthcare and health policy in North Carolina. He obtained a master’s degree in neuroscience at Wake Forest University’s Graduate School for the Arts and Sciences, where he worked in the Laboratory for Complex Brain Networks. He is based in Raleigh. Contact him at cgreen@carolinapublicpress.org.