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Supporting Economic Opportunity through Apprenticeships: A Q&A with SEMI Foundation

Briefly tell use about SEMI Foundation. What does your organization do?

The SEMI Foundation is the 501(c)(3) arm of SEMI, the global industry association representing the microelectronics manufacturing and design supply chain. We have more than 3,000 members worldwide. The Foundation operates more than a dozen workforce development initiatives as part of a holistic approach that is grounded in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Our mission is to support economic opportunity for workers and the sustained growth of the microelectronics industry by creating pathways and opportunities for jobseekers, as well as tools and systems for semiconductor companies to attract, develop, retain, and advance a diverse and skilled workforce.

Why are apprenticeships good for jobseekers and workers paid low wages?

Registered Apprenticeship Programs (RAPs) have significant benefits for both workers and employers. So many people in low-wage jobs often work multiple jobs and cannot afford the time or loss of income to go back to school or learn new skills for better jobs. In apprenticeships, workers receive wages from day one, earning while they learn. Participants can also access services to help them succeed in the training: travel vouchers, help with childcare, stipends for books and uniforms, and more.

The RAP model also allows the worker to “audition” the company extensively, ensuring that the workplace culture is a good fit. It can introduce workers to new communities and industries that may have been unfamiliar, and RAPs provide nationally recognized, portable credentials for workers’ career progression and mobility.

What are some of the biggest barriers to apprenticeships and retention overall facing jobseekers, particularly women, nonbinary individuals, people of color, and individuals historically excluded from opportunities? What are some solutions to address these barriers?

A lack of understanding and awareness of the RAP model itself is a barrier. And because apprenticeships have been, historically, in the construction and building trades, people do not realize how many other fields RAPs serve. However, this is a great opportunity to design apprenticeships in new industries in a way that is actively inclusive and welcoming of not just new fields and trades but also of all kinds of workers.

The same kinds of exclusions can exist in apprenticeship programs that are found anywhere else. If women, nonbinary individuals, communities of color, and others who have been historically excluded are not made to feel safe and welcome, they will leave the program. Since the microelectronics industry is primarily white and male, work must be done to design programs that actively welcome individuals of all identities and backgrounds. This starts by ensuring that the process to design the RAP is inclusive, with worker voices included and informing the programs.

It also requires intentional and inclusive outreach and recruitment — and meeting potential workers where they are, in their own communities. But, most importantly — and this is often overlooked — employers need to self-reflect on their own practices to ensure they are creating safe, welcoming, and inclusive workplaces. Employers, not just the RAPs, must create environments where all workers can thrive; otherwise, the programs will not succeed.

What does progress look like for your apprenticeship work? What are you hoping to achieve?

When we first started talking to microelectronics employers a couple of years ago about RAPs, there was significant resistance, as the model was not familiar to many of them. However, this model is gaining momentum in interest and popularity, due in part because the federal CHIPS and Science Act strongly recommend that companies applying for funding consider RAPs as part of their workforce strategies.

We spend a great deal of time educating employers about apprenticeships and the benefits they provide. We also work to connect employers with the many partners – workforce boards, training providers, community organizations – who can support the employers. Significant networks are in place that can help with apprenticeships.

We also work to break down silos in the industry. There is such a focus on IP (intellectual property) which prohibits collaboration, but companies can have more success on workforce development and creating more equitable workplaces when they work together and explore best practices.

This has been demonstrated by a collaborative group of employers working with us on a Registered Apprenticeship Program in the Bay Area of California. Four companies are training for four different job titles, but it turns out that the fundamentals of each job are the same — so much so that all four roles fit within the same RAP. This group of employers, joined by partner community colleges and workforce boards, is enjoying a robust, collaborative process that is unusual in our industry.

This kind of approach will ideally achieve our goal of helping thousands of California workers find economic mobility and opportunity. Beyond this, we hope to support member companies in continuing career pathways for the apprentices we train; to gain an industry-wide, national adoption of the RAP model; and to dramatically diversify the industry by offering alternative pathways to microelectronics careers.

We need the ability to experiment, fail quickly, learn, succeed, build, and grow as we work to shift an entire industry toward more equitable practices like Registered Apprenticeship Programs.

What do you want funders to know about supporting apprenticeships? How can they better support this work?

Registered Apprenticeships are highly place-based work. There are national strategies, models, and frameworks, but the relationships between employers, educational institutions, workforce boards, and community organizations require thoughtful attention and care. It is important to have local people involved who understand the unique landscape of any region working to lift a RAP.

This work also requires access to decision-makers at employers. There are often so many folks involved in creating training programs, but to truly, successfully implement RAPs requires buy-in from the bottom up and the top down. All this relationship-building and case-making requires time and resources. Case in point: For one of our original funding applications to launch an RAP, it took us 21 hours of meetings to get one letter of support – not even a letter of commitment – from just one company.

The importance of an intermediary cannot be overstated. Intermediaries are uniquely positioned to knit together the many partners and resources required to build successful RAPs. More robust intermediaries are needed, particularly those who support apprentices by providing access to wrap-around services. And given that our industry is largely new to apprenticeships, this is a major opportunity to build a network of intermediaries and companies nationwide who are working together to inform the work as it launches in each region – and to support the field of RAPs generally.

Investing in the above – building capacity and strengthening the burgeoning RAP ecosystem in non-traditional apprenticeships – will be key to growing this work nationwide.

What gives you hope for this work in the future?

Funders like Irvine! We need the ability to experiment, fail quickly, learn, succeed, build, and grow as we work to shift an entire industry toward more equitable practices like Registered Apprenticeship Programs. Having a funding partner like Irvine will allow us to make significant progress in this work. We are also bolstered by the newfound interest in the model. We now have companies reaching out to us to learn more, versus us spending hours and hours simply to book a conversation about RAPs.

We believe strongly in the potential of RAPs to change lives and communities for the better, which fuels our work. And finally, our industry is largely embracing the fact that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is a critical business strategy. This means equitable models like Registered Apprenticeship Programs will ultimately be widely embraced, bringing greater prosperity to workers and employers alike.