By James Mitchell| Crain’s Custom Media

The challenge of finding new talent may be met through a decidedly old-fashioned method. Employers are rediscovering apprenticeship programs – a curriculum that combines classroom lessons with on-the-job experience – as a practical means of maintaining a competitive workforce.

Janene Kelley Erne, apprenticeship coordinator at Oakland Community College, said she fields frequent calls from companies looking to establish – or revive – programs, both in manufacturing and other fields.

“Training was the first thing cut during the recession,” Erne said. “Some companies had let programs die; others want to get back into it. It’s very tried and true training that combines education with on-the job experience instead of just theory in a lab.”

Apprenticeships at Oakland rebounded after falling to less than 100 students two years ago. Erne said the fall 2014 enrollment of 250 will likely return to – if not exceed – pre-recession levels as companies consider the available resources: In December the U.S. Department of Labor announced $100 million in grants to expand registered apprenticeship programs, funneled through education institutions and partnerships such as the Workforce Intelligence Network and Michigan Works!

Macomb Community College Apprentice Coordinator Victoria Gordon said that the lapse in formalized training programs – during a period of unprecedented changes in technology – left employers short-handed. The challenge in a revived economy has created a sense of urgency to identify the next generation of talent.

“It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of qualified workers,” Gordon said. “Companies are starting to rediscover the apprenticeship model, mostly because they’ve had to. It reduces training costs and you grow your own competitive workforce with personalized skills.”

Enrollment at Macomb’s Applied Technology Apprenticeship Program has more than doubled since 2011, from about 500 to more than 1,000 in Fall 2014. Of those, Gordon said that 200 were sponsored by the 45 participating companies.

Those numbers are expected to grow as demand for skilled, experienced workers currently exceeds the supply. Erne said that employers have called looking to find a second- or third-year Oakland apprentices who can hit the ground running on-the-job.

“I told them, ‘You can’t have ‘em – they’re already spoken for,’” Erne said. “Companies realize they have to grow their own, and they need to get in now and plan for two, three years out.”

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