Episode 311: Featuring Mary Wright, Apprenticeship Program Manager for SHRM Foundation

Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Episode 311: Featuring Mary Wright, Apprenticeship Program Manager for SHRM Foundation (@Maryvlwright)


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.73] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. In November of 2020, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprentice programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high growth, high demand jobs. This Workology podcast is powered by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today, I’m joined by Mary Wright. She’s the apprenticeship program manager for the SHRM Foundation. Mary manages the development and implementation of a new competency based human resource specialist registered apprenticeship program. The SHRM Foundation was one of the recipients of funding from the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration’s apprenticeship, Closing the Skills Gap grant program. The program will be a nationally recognized professional credential to support the large scale expansion of apprenticeship in the HR industry. Mary, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Mary Wright: [00:01:44.67] Oh, thank you so much. I’m so glad to have a chance to be here with you today.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:47.91] I can’t wait to talk about this because this is going to help so many people in the HR space. Let’s jump right in and talk about the new competency-based HR specialist registered apprenticeship program or HR RAP, which I like a lot better than all that other stuff there. This is really exciting. And I would love for you to share more about it with us.

Mary Wright: [00:02:11.34] Well, sure. And again, I’m glad to have a chance to talk about this. I’m obviously very excited about the program having been brought to the SHRM foundation to get it started. So I’m very excited about the possibilities. As the SHRM Foundation looked at what was going on in the world of HR and as we look to think about how we help our HR professionals bring new talent into the workplace, one of the ways to begin to do this was to think about doing an apprenticeship program. And we thought what a great way to allow more people to join the profession, because apprenticeships are really designed to give folks who have perhaps have not studied at college a real chance to get into a terrific career. So the HR apprenticeship program was designed to help those HR professionals find new talent and bring them in in a way that allows for really a customized training program for that organization. So the program says that it will take somewhere between 18 and 24 months to get the skills they need. And these skills are defined by us as part of our registering the apprenticeship program with the Department of Labor. So we have decided, based on the SHRM body of competency and knowledge, which is the framework that SHRM has put together about what makes for a good HR professional.

Mary Wright: [00:03:34.59] We’ve taken that and turned it into essentially a training program that a employer gives to the apprentice. So what an apprenticeship program says is that you hire someone, it’s a full time employee, bring them on as a full time employee. You give them a mentor or a supervisor who is going to guide them through this process. You give them a set of, as we call it, related technical instruction or really the educational component. And those are online modules, or they can be taken with a, with a two or four year institution. And that at the end of that program, you have a chance, you then can earn the SHRM CP or the SHRM, it’s the SHRM credential which says you are now a certified professional in HR. So it’s a program that allows for someone to have an “earn and learn” opportunity. They are able to learn the profession as they are earning money and being a full time employee. So that’s the gist of the program. And we’re very excited to see how we can really move it across the country.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:44.16] I love this. And I do feel like 18 to 24 months is the right amount of time for somebody who’s new to dive into human resources and get some real life work experience, because all of us who are listening to the podcast know as HR professionals, the best kind of experience that you can get is when you’re in the weeds doing the job and learning while you work.

Mary Wright: [00:05:09.21] And I guess I would say the other thing is that obviously apprenticeships have been used in a large variety of occupations, although many people think of an apprenticeship program as only something that can be done in the trades, or only can be done at a large company, or only can be something that is not really appropriate for white collar jobs. And we know that that’s not true, for starters, just in general. So there are a lot of myths to be busted as we think about apprenticeship programs. It’s really appropriate for any occupation where you really can do that “earn and learn.” And there’s very few jobs where you don’t learn really well while on the job. Right. And so as long as you’ve got the aptitude and the willingness to learn, apprenticeship can be a great way to bring somebody into the profession. And it’s, it’s not just for the trades and it’s not just for union positions. And that’s something that I’m hoping everyone will recognize. I think the other thing is, it’s not just for big companies. It is, really is appropriate for any company that would like to bring somebody in and have them trained to the specifications that they would like, and have the willingness to put that time into it. In many ways, it’s very similar to bringing on anyone new into a company. You know, there’s always that onboarding time. It really doesn’t matter how smart the person is. You could have a Ph.D. and you still have to have that onboarding time. But it’s also being able to train them to meet your specifications.

Mary Wright: [00:06:39.09] You don’t have to retrain anyone in that sense. So it really gives you the chance to have somebody be the kind of HR professional that you’d like. And the other thing is HR is a funny position in many ways in that often people land in HR almost by mistake. They get transferred from another department. And it’s something, as somebody says, oh, you’re good with people, go into HR. And we really think there’s a lot more to the HR profession than that. And you really can start at the beginning and really learn what you need in order to be the best HR professional you can be. So I think that there are lots of advantages. The other thing is, just from a strictly productivity improvement, one of the concerns always is when you recruit someone new, you’re always concerned about the retention rates. Will that person really stay in the company? What we know from apprenticeships across the board is that 94 percent of the people who come in through an apprenticeship program are still with the company one to two years later. The other thing is the return on investment. There’s always the concern, if I’m going to put this much time and effort into somebody, what’s my return on that investment? Because it’s a more intense training program. And studies have shown it’s about a $1.40 return for every dollar you put in. So between that retention and then the productivity, because it’s the person, the person has the skills that you as an employer really want, it truly becomes a terrific way to have a talent development pipeline.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:07.65] So when you’re describing how people just, sort of a mistake, they get into HR, that is exactly what happened. And you, you told my story word for word. And I was told that I had a great personality and that I would be perfect for human resources, but I had no background or knowledge in HR at all other than when I took my business classes.

Mary Wright: [00:08:29.70] And yours is not an unusual story. So I think that, you know, to think about how do we help someone really get the training they need to enter HR? I mean, one of the things we found out when we did a quick pulse survey before we launched the apprenticeship program in talking to our, you know, our HR members was, what’s the biggest challenge of bringing somebody new into HR? And they said it’s, they don’t know anything about HR. So, so that really puts you in a bind. You’ve hired somebody who’s supposed to have all these, you know, all this knowledge and be an entry level HR professional. Wouldn’t it be better to sort of start with the assumption that I’m really going to train this person to be the HR professional that I want and I’m going to put the time and effort into making this happen. And the nice, the great thing about an apprenticeship program is that if the person does not have the qualities that you’re looking for, or the skills that you wanted, you can bring them in at a lower pay scale. You do have to increase their pay over the time of the apprenticeship program, but you’re bringing them on understanding that there’s lots to learn. So it’s a terrific opportunity to, for upskilling. If you have someone within your organization that has perhaps been interested in HR or has been tangentially related to HR, and you can bring them in, but you can bring them in at a lower level. The other thing is, it really allows somebody to increase their talent pool. You don’t have to stick with well gee I need somebody with a four year degree who’s already got the business degree or whatever it was you were looking for. You can really take somebody on aptitude and desire to be in the field, which is a terrific way to be able to recruit.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:07.52] I do want to talk more about the program and how it’s set up. But first, I wanted to talk with you and I would love for you to share with us your role as the program manager and how your background brought you to the SHRM Foundation, because I feel like this is your area of expertise. So talk with us.

Mary Wright: [00:10:26.18] Sure. So I was hired by the SHRM Foundation to start the program. So the grant application and approval had already, we’d already gone through that. So I had, you know, I have a grant that says over four years, get us 800 apprentices. So go for it. So I’ve been able to take the really terrific bones of the SHRM body of competency and knowledge and be able to turn that into the program and get that approved by the Department of Labor. And now my job is to do outreach with employers to tell them what a terrific program this is. I’m doing this certainly with the help of the over 300,000 members of SHRM and being able to use them as obviously my first line of possible customers for this terrific project. So my job is to really be the ambassador for apprenticeships within SHRM. Now, SHRM has been talking about the value of workplace learning for a long time. But this really gives us a program to be able to push that forward. So the reason, though, that this fits so well with, with, you know, and why I’m so, with my background and why I’m passionate about it, is my whole career has been around talking about the matching or the integration of public, nonprofit and private sector. And this really started with getting an MBA in public nonprofit management and doing a career in public finance where I was far more interested in the projects than the financial structure, and then going into business and education partnerships and then working with how do we get more underrepresented populations or untapped talent. How do we get employers more intrigued with that particular population? So it’s a, this is a great way for me to be, to continue to sort of do that matching between what’s obviously a public good is to certainly get untapped talent into careers that have, you know, life, that really have a career path. And how do I get private employers, and for that matter, public employers to think about using these tools as a way to get a better talent pipeline?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:37.25] Awesome. Well, let’s talk about the apprenticeship program. This is SHRM Foundation’s first national apprenticeship program. Can you talk about how the model is set up, maybe for professionals that are listening right now. They’re like, hey, I want to participate in this. How does this work?

Mary Wright: [00:12:54.50] Sure. So as an HR professional, I think that, obviously I would say, call me. Right. And I’m happy to walk through the steps of the program. But really what it is, is to identify an HR professional, if they’ve got a slot, if you have a slot coming up, you know that you have an FTE that you’re going to need to fill, or there isn’t a readily available candidate that you just know you want to hire. But perhaps you’re thinking about, I need to, I’d like to figure out a way to begin to meet my diversity, equity, inclusion goals. And I would like to demonstrate how, you know, I, within the HR department have a chance to really show that I can do this here, as well as promoting that as a really good strategy throughout the organization. So can we think about bringing on some, someone from untapped talent and so that’s a person with disabilities, that could be veterans, veteran’s spouse, veteran’s caregiver, person of color, the whole, the whole mosaic of diversity candidates. How do we bring them into HR? Then you think about is, who is it that I would like to supervise that particular candidate. Is that yourself or someone else and really be able to structure that. Then I would say review the contents that we would be able to share with you, which is the program that outlines exactly what it is that the person has to learn. And there are sort of 15 categories, headings of topics, you know, talent, recruitment, comp and benefits, training and development.

Mary Wright: [00:14:29.20] A number of other topics that, and this list will look very familiar to anyone who’s in the profession. Then select how it is that you would like the person to have that educational component. And that’s available either through SHRM. We have online, we’ve got learning modules. Or to work with another school of higher education. We have a relationship with Southern New Hampshire University to give a discounted rate on their HR, on their HR certificate. And other schools have also been chatting with us about how they might be able to offer that kind of related technical instruction. And then sit with me. We register the program and then you can go ahead and recruit. We’re happy to work with any employer about finding that untapped talent, whether that’s working with a workforce board or looking at community based organizations that have ready candidates for the program. So that’s really the structure. That’s the, that’s that’s the process. I, and I think it’s, we certainly hold your hand through the thing. Many people say, oh, my gosh, it’s something with apprenticeship programs, the Department of Labor, I’m going to have all this paperwork to do. We handle the paperwork. That’s pretty much done for you. You report to us and tell us what it is that you’ve, if you have the apprentice, their name and what they’re learning during their program. But certainly the hard work of getting the program approved, we’ve already done.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:52.52] All this sounds amazing. And I think it’s important for us to point out that this is a paid program. You said “earn while you learn.” So HR pros or apprentices, those who are being apprenticed are being provided compensation while they learn and work in the profession, in these roles in the organization with the opportunity later on to, you said, get an increase in pay and move into a non apprenticeship role, like kind of graduate, I suppose.

Mary Wright: [00:16:23.15] That’s one way to look at it. But certainly when the person is, is there, they are a full time employee. They’re not viewed any differently, they should not be viewed any differently by the organization. Every new employee has a training program. Right. And, but we know that some of those training programs are much better than others and are far more in depth. And I think the way to look at this is that it is a wraparound training program for a new entrant. So you are able to give that person the kind of learning and support they need to be successful.

Break: [00:16:56.69] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology Podcast, sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today we are talking with Mary Wright. She’s the apprenticeship program manager for the SHRM Foundation. This podcast is part of our podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA.

 Break: [00:17:17.90] This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. In November, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high growth, high demand jobs.

Competency-based HR Specialist Registered Apprenticeship Program (HR RAP)

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:55.37] Can you tell us a little bit about how education and certification for apprenticeships can impact our current and future skills gaps? I’m thinking across industries, not just HR, but for maybe those who are like, I hadn’t thought about apprenticeships this way. Talk us through.

Mary Wright: [00:18:11.60] Sure. One, of one of the things, you know, we all are trying to look for silver linings from Covid. Right. And you know, what, what good things came out of that. And I guess I would say, you know, unfortunately, we did not eliminate the skills gap. Right. We still ended up in a situation where, and actually the skills gap has become larger with the great resignation, with the number of jobs that are being posted and the number of people who are available and skilled to take those jobs. And that skills gap was true in HR prior to, to Covid. And now, whatever we’re calling, you know, this, whatever, whatever we’re calling this next phase of the economy that we are in, we still have a skills gap. And certainly the number of HR professionals that are needed are still continuing to rise. So we know that we need to come up with a different way to provide the training, because the traditional way of getting people into those jobs is obviously not working very well. We remember that this happened, you know, with teachers. We began to say, well, gee, teachers all need, you know, PhDs or master’s degrees. And we had to go back and say maybe we can come up with different ways to certify what people know.

Mary Wright: [00:19:30.11] And maybe that will give us the way to be able to get more people into the workforce, into that profession. Well, that’s what’s happening with so many jobs in the economy now. And so we’re saying, what are the other ways that we can recognize people’s skills and abilities besides the traditional four year degree? And one of the best ways, and certainly one of the tools that has been most used, certainly in the United States, but certainly globally, are apprenticeships. And we’re saying how is it that we can structure a training program, give people the training that they need, but let them earn the money that they need to be in that training program. You know, so many people want to take training, but they don’t have the financial wherewithal to do that. So we recognize that, as long as people need to get into training programs, how do we make it possible for them to do that while still supporting themselves and/or their families? So apprenticeships is a terrific model to be able to help people get into jobs that they otherwise, you know, the traditional methods, the traditional four year degree has not been an option for them.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:41.73] I really love that you’re, that SHRM and the SHRM Foundation are offering this because you’re absolutely right. Certifications can be really costly. And if you don’t have the work experience to qualify for, and education kind of mix, to qualify for a certification program through SHRM, you still need to find a way to get that experience. So it’s kind of, this is an opportunity for you to be able to gain that. And then, at the end of your apprenticeship program, you have the option to be able to test for the SHRM CP exam, which is wonderful.

Mary Wright: [00:21:20.58] I think it’s, yeah, it is thinking about what are those alternative routes to be able to get to the kind of job you want to have. And certainly that’s something that we think all the whole area of alternative credentials really gives people a huge, you know, it gives the workers or the employee a chance to demonstrate their skills without having to do the traditional four year degree.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:48.84] We are hearing a lot recently about diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility or DEIA, as the Biden administration is calling it. How do you think apprenticeship programs like HR RAP can support marginalized groups?

Mary Wright: [00:22:05.13] That’s really what the apprenticeship program is designed to do, is to help those who have not had access to traditional training or did not have the funds available. So folks who have never been able to think about how would they go to community college, how could they pay for those alternative credentials? It really allows an employer to say, I have a whole new group of people that I can look at, and that’s everybody, you know, and we’ve been through the list, but it also includes, you know, people with criminal records, it includes, you know, people of color in many cases. It really allows folks to, it really allows those employers to say, where have I not looked, I’ve not tapped into in terms to find the talent that I need. So I think that the, you know, by giving people a real way to look at, to look at new talent, because they’ll be able to train them to meet their specifications is really, it’s, it’s a huge door opener. And I think that, you know, we’re very excited about the possibilities of being able to work with certainly community based organizations and other national organizations who are involved with prepping folks to go into the workforce who have not ordinarily had an opportunity. You know, how can we really, how can we really help HR professionals help out these people more proactively?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:36.45] What are some of the expectations you’ve seen since the launch of HR RAP certification?

Mary Wright: [00:23:43.08] So, I’m really excited about what’s happening in the workplace around apprenticeships in general. And then what we could, what can happen because we’ve introduced the HR RAP. I think the big thing is that there is a continual drumbeat around the value of apprenticeships. So lots more conversation about the return on investment, the productivity improvements, the, the fact that employers are looking for ways to figure out how to get a worker that’s trained the way they want and will stay with them over time. Nobody wants to waste their time training someone who isn’t going to stay. So I think that we’re very excited about being able to push apprenticeships for the HR profession while we’re also promoting the value of apprenticeships across the spectrum. We recognize also that trying to get HR professionals interested in an HR apprenticeship program can only help with expanding apprenticeships across occupations. So as long as we’re really committed to the idea of workplace learning and, the work and learn model, we think this is a great opportunity to continue to get people excited. And we’re very excited by the reception that we’re getting from SHRM members and the number of presentations that I’m being asked to make to our SHRM chapters and councils across the country. So that’s very exciting. I think the second thing is, is continuing the conversation around recognizing alternative credentials. So going beyond the four year degree and how do we get HR

Mary Wright: [00:25:29.17] professionals and everyone else to think about, how do I identify the skills that folks have, not just the fact that they have a four year degree? Is there a way that I can really value those alternative credentials as an alternative hiring strategy? So the fact that we’re seeing a lot more conversation about that I think is terrific. I think the other thing is really being very pleased with our ability to encourage HR professionals and other folks to look at that untapped talent and be able to recognize the value of that untapped talent. I mean, we know that there are so many people out there who do, who are ready to go into apprenticeship programs, who have terrific skills that would be wonderful contributors to any organization. So I think that those are the things that we’re seeing coming because of, you know, or in tandem with or because of the HR registered apprenticeship program and the conversation that we’re able to, to start being SHRM, as as I’ve said earlier, you know, the 300,000 members that we have and the reach that we have to over 150 million people because of those thousand members. We think there’s a real chance for us to make a contribution to promoting apprenticeships and therefore helping untapped talent really find the career choice that they want.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:55.48] Well, Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Where can people go to connect with you and learn more about the SHRM Foundation’s HR RAP Apprenticeship program?

Mary Wright: [00:27:06.13] So we have our own website for the program, which is HRApprentice.org. Or if you want to just check out the SHRM Foundation Web page, you can find us on the, you know, find us on the Web as well. Once you take a look at the apprenticeship website, our contact information is there, and you can reach me through that website. And so I hope that I will hear from a number of you to see how this program could really work for you. I think there is. And it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. It can be something that you plan for. We know that FTEs don’t come open all the time. But if you say I’m willing to think about how to put this in our organization and I’d like to spend some time getting the stakeholders in my organization ready to take it on, I’m happy to work with you to make that happen.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:55.23] Again, Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Mary Wright: [00:27:59.35] Happy to do it. Thank you so much.

Closing: [00:28:01.87] This is such an interesting area of focus for HR professionals, but I love it. I love it. We need more real time experience in HR roles. And to have a formal program is even more amazing, not just kind of rogue learning, which is how I ended up in HR and I learned on the fly. This is amazing because so many of us in HR have supported mentorship and apprenticeships in our own careers. Being able to get an HR certification in this specialty area is a huge step towards HR leading formal apprenticeship programs, not just for HR, but for the future of all organizations adopting apprenticeship programs beyond those skilled trades. I appreciate Mary sharing her experience with us today on the podcast. Thank you to our podcast sponsors Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam and this apprenticeship series, the PIA series, is powered by PIA, and I appreciate their support.

Closing: [00:29:01.63] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join UpSkill HR to access live training, community, and over 100 hundred on-demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com for more. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrill, and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology podcast episodes.

Connect with Mary Wright.



– Mary Wright on LinkedIn

– Mary Wright on Twitter

– Human Resource Registered Apprenticeship Program (HR RAP)

– SHRM Foundation

– Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship

– Episode 298: Creating Inclusive Apprenticeships with Josh Christianson of PIA

– Episode 296: How Remote Internships Can Bridge the Disability Employment Gap

– Episode 264: Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship (PIA) with Vinz Koller

How to Subscribe to the Workology Podcast

Stitcher | PocketCast | iTunes | Podcast RSS | Google Play | YouTube | TuneIn

Find out how to be a guest on the Workology Podcast.

Posted in ,

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell is the founder of Workology, a digital resource that reaches more than a half million HR and workplace leaders each month and host of the Workology Podcast. Jessica lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, daughter, and an assortment of furry family members.


Pin It on Pinterest