Apprenticeship Accelerators in a Virtual World: Lessons From Idaho
In-person accelerators have always been a successful method for providing employers with a crash course on how to develop a high quality Registered Apprenticeship. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the event shifted to virtual and turned out to be just as—if not more—successful. Here are some key takeaways.
Apprenticeship accelerators give employers and other key stakeholders a crash course in how to develop and run high-quality Registered Apprenticeship programs. The events, which feature expert speakers, networking, and resource sharing, are designed to jump-start the complicated process of registering apprenticeships with the U.S. Department of Labor.
These events have always been held in-person, offering lots of information-packed sessions, as well as intensive, customized one-on-one assistance. Is it possible to host a successful virtual accelerator? It absolutely is. Here’s how we did it and some lessons we learned.
As the country entered its first wave of COVID-19 restrictions, JFF decided to change course on its planned April 2020 apprenticeship accelerator in Idaho. The goal of the event was to encourage Idaho’s business and educational communities to expand youth apprenticeship across the state. The first thing we did was reschedule the accelerator for June, allowing time for its dramatic redesign.
We recognized that a five-hour in-person event would have to be shortened considerably now that we were presenting online—typically, you can hold someone’s attention for up to just one to two hours in a virtual event. So, we reduced the accelerator to two hours. But we were concerned about losing a significant chunk of content and didn’t want to rush the topics that made the cut.
Our team was thoughtful about what we eliminated. For example, instead of spending an hour going through the basics of apprenticeship , we provided the 15-minute “Cliff’s Notes” version. Also, while employer and apprentice testimonials about the value of apprenticeships are a staple of our accelerator events, we felt they weren’t critical to include this time.
In lieu of testimonials, Idaho Governor Brad Little shared a few words about the importance of apprenticeships in a video sent as part of the invitation. This approach meant more time for other content at the event and was also a great marketing tool as it highlighted the importance of apprenticeship to the state.
Attendance at a successful accelerator event is typically about 50 people. You might have one or two leaders from businesses, community colleges, or industry associations take time out of their busy schedules to travel to the gathering. But with a virtual event, distance is no longer an obstacle and our experience confirmed that. Surprisingly, we had a handful of attendees that came from other states—and we’ve since received follow-up requests to replicate the event for a couple of those areas.
In partnership with our “on-the-ground” Idaho team of planners, our marketing efforts, which included targeted email and social media outreach and the governor’s video, proved to be successful. Some 260 people registered for the accelerator and a whopping 83 percent (215 people) attended the event. At JFF, we’ve found that, typically, between 30 and 50 percent of people who register for a free, virtual event end up attending, so we were impressed with the turnout. And about 95 percent of the attendees stayed for the second half, when we transitioned into breakout rooms for smaller group conversations.
Provide Virtual Space for Engagement
Our team felt that the biggest loss in going virtual would be the post-meeting opportunities for experts to drill down one-on-one with employers who might be ready for customized technical assistance. To make up for that, we made sure that participants left the event with the names and contact information of the three Idaho state Department of Labor team members who would serve as point people for follow-up. We shared that information early and often. Post-event follow-up included an email to all registrants with all of the presentation documents, recordings, and additional resources.
One of the most significant advantages of the virtual event was the new way attendees were able to engage with presenters and each other during the sessions.
We also provided three breakout rooms for opportunities to engage in small-group conversations, diving deeper into certain topics. One takeaway from this experience was that attendees were eager to participate. In the breakouts, participants were able to unmute themselves to ask questions, and interact directly with the experts. This helped attendees feel engaged and walk away with valuable information. We recommend using these opportunities to facilitate dialogue between the experts and attendees, rather than as a one-way presentation.
One of the most significant advantages of the virtual event was the new way attendees were able to engage with presenters and each other during the sessions. Attendees were encouraged to use the chat feature on the webinar platform to add questions or comments as presenters rotated in and out. Conversations were robust and it was encouraging to see the flurry of substantive questions and comments roll in. (We were thrilled to see comments in the chat from Idaho State Senator Dave Lent related to the state’s apprenticeship-related legislation.)
This is something we’ve wanted to do; the event provided the motivation and connections to get started.
The success of any apprenticeship accelerator is measured by what happens afterwards. There were many follow-up appointment requests with presenter Gina Robison-Billups, Idaho’s State Apprentice Program Supervisor, and others.
Presenter Marie Price, director for training and development at the Idaho Forest Group, one of the country’s largest lumber producers, shared these sentiments after the event: “Thank you for bringing this event to Idaho. I already have a tangible result. A superintendent from a rural school district near one of our mills, who attended my presentation in the breakout session, scheduled a follow-up meeting on starting a School-to-Registered Apprenticeship partnership in her district. This is something we’ve wanted to do; the event provided the motivation and connections to get started.”