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Alexis Stokes of Accenture: ‘[The apprenticeship] has definitely added more character to me in terms of being more professional’

Three years ago, Alexis Stokes was a postal worker delivering letters and parcels for the United States Postal Service. Now, she is a qualified expert in automated technologies — a transformation she achieved almost entirely by training on the job.

After completing a three-month coding boot camp, Stokes joined professional services company Accenture as an apprentice. A year and a half later, she works as an accessibility tester: trialling applications for use by people with motor skill or visual impairments. Her salary is double that of her postal service role.

“It has definitely added more character to me in terms of being more professional,” Stokes says. “I have got great economic mobility and long-term ­benefits.”

Stokes is one of many employees who have transformed their careers by learning on the job — a prospect that could become more appealing to workers as the cost of living crisis bites.

Only 0.5 per cent of global gross domestic product is invested in adult training, according to the World Economic Forum. But, as skills shortages and a tight labour market put pressure on companies, some are paying more attention to helping employees in lower-paid roles to retrain — enabling staff to advance in their careers and companies to become more productive.

“Candidly, when we started, I thought it was going to be a corporate responsibility initiative,” says Jimmy Etheredge, chief executive of Accenture North America, describing the apprenticeship programme that led to Stokes’ current position. “It has wildly exceeded my expectations.”

Jimmy Etheredge of Accenture
Jimmy Etheredge of Accenture © David Swanson/Reuters

Since it was launched in 2016, Accenture’s apprenticeship programme has expanded rapidly, boosted by recruits from industries such as hospitality that were hit by the pandemic. Relaxing a stipulation that new hires have a university education means that, nowadays, about 45 per cent of entry-level roles do not require a four-year degree, while 22 per cent of entry-level jobs were last year filled with apprenticeships.

“We have shifted to a skills focus for the job,” Etheredge says. Training is typically between nine months and a year alongside paid roles, and recruits earn recognised credentials as well as receiving mentoring and coaching support. “We went through a process of looking through our entry-level roles to say, do they need a four-year degree?” Etheredge adds. “It’s a relic.”

According to the World Economic Forum, some 54 per cent of all employees now need significant upskilling or reskilling. Employers, however, do not always see workforce investment as a must-have.

In the UK, employer investment in training has fallen 28 per cent since 2005, and lower skilled workers are the least likely to benefit. If you have a degree, you are three times more likely to get training at work than someone with no qualifications.

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, a think-tank, is not optimistic about change happening any time soon. “We’re not about to embark on a period of economic growth,” he notes. “You need the economy growing, you need macro stability, and you need the right incentives, but you need an active industrial strategy . . . Part of it is seeing skills as part of that strategy, rather than in isolation.”

As well as more investment, Evans believes companies need to overhaul their approach to in-work training. “The biggest reason adults give for not taking part in learning is they’re not interested or they can’t see the point,” he says. “But the next reason is cost and fitting it around home life. We need to look at different ways of learning, online, bite-size courses, for example.”

Pitney Bowes, a US mail processing company that has in recent years diversified into software and ecommerce, is working with Guild Education, a company that connects workers to learning opportunities, to offer support for college tuition for employees.

Andy Gold, chief human resources officer at the company, says reskilling begins with paying attention to workers’ needs, asking them about their next steps and assessing their skills. “It starts where the employee is.”

It is common at Pitney Bowes for managers to start in roles working on mail sorting, and progress by training on different types of sortation equipment, before moving into jobs overseeing teams. In the pandemic, increased demand for drivers also prompted the company to introduce new paths for training operators to drive trucks.

Offering training makes sense for business, too, says Gold. Employees who access training are more engaged, perform better, and are more likely to stay at the company — reducing hiring costs.

“We see it as a differentiator,” Gold says. “That hourly workforce base tends to be one of the most diverse groups . . . If you’re trying to build an inclusive organisation that develops diverse viewpoints, we’ve got people right here who are willing and able to learn, and they stay.”

US supermarket Walmart offers its hourly paid employees full tuition and courseware support for high school diplomas, college degrees and professional certificates in areas from cyber security to supply chain management, through its Live Better U programme.

Opportunities include funding to train as a certified pharmacy technician, with certification securing an additional $3 per hour in pay.

Michael Hansen, chief executive of Cengage, which works with Walmart to develop some of the materials, says companies are becoming more open to training workers who begin with relatively few qualifications, while they work. “It’s changing gradually,” he says. “There are some companies that are forging ahead and understand that retraining their employees is the way to go.”

Now a mentor for other apprenticeship employees at Accenture, Stokes believes in-work reskilling is crucial to help workers advance in their careers.

She points out that, by starting from a position of relative security, with pay and benefits and a workplace community, workers who might otherwise lack the confidence to further their careers are supported to make progress without risks.

“You have to be comfortable to be able to challenge yourself, and all the skilling opportunities help me challenge myself,” Stokes adds.

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