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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Research : Apprenticeships in America - Still in the Developing Phase

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

The Status Quo

The United States labor shortage has seen millions of high-skilled jobs left vacant due to low supply in the American workforce’s talent pipeline. The government, across several presidential administrations, has increased funding toward the nation’s workforce development system on several fronts, including community colleges, reentry programs, and care infrastructure. However, there is one workforce development model that the US has struggled to standardize: apprenticeships. In the US, the number of apprenticeships as a percentage of the total workforce is one-eighth that of the United Kingdom and Australia. Although 14,700+ American apprenticeship programs were created in the last four years, persisting skill mismatches in the US labor force underscore that not enough is being done to provide workers with knowledge applicable to industry needs.


A Harvard report found that if the number of occupations commonly covered by apprenticeships increased from 27 to 74, roughly tripled, eight times more job openings would be filled through apprenticeships. Furthermore, the additional occupations provide access to higher-value careers that come with a 20%+ premium. Evidently, apprenticeships require little expansion to achieve great effect, and thus are a prime solution to addressing labor shortages.

Many European countries build apprenticeship systems into their standard education system. The most notable example is Switzerland, which offers high school students a dual training system, splitting school hours between classroom training and apprenticeships. To foster career exploration among its students, the system allows apprentices to bounce around industries and go on to pursue university degrees if desired. Germany operates a similar system; upon completing two-to-four years of classroom and on-the-job training (OJT), many students are offered a full-time position with the employer operating their apprenticeship.

Evidently, apprenticeships require little expansion to achieve great effect, and thus are a prime solution to addressing labor shortages.

Roadblocks

Why, then, has the United States fallen behind in developing such a robust apprenticeship system?


Cultural mindsets, easy to overlook, play a significant role in the lack of interest American high school students may have toward entering apprenticeships. Parents and students who have the option often prioritize gaining a four-year college degree over pursuing an apprenticeship, swayed by the stigma that bachelor’s degrees pave the path to unmatched career growth and mobility.

However, the root of the problem–the creation of apprenticeship opportunities–falls solely in the hands of employers.


From an employer’s viewpoint, starting an apprenticeship takes a lot of time and work. The registration process is extensive and tedious. Employers must register with the Department of Labor (DOL) and then seek state approval, only to compete for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIAO) funding from local and state workforce boards. Even so, funding comes in incremental grants rather than consistent flows.


To alleviate administrative duties, employers rely on intermediary institutions, such as industry associations and entrepreneurial non-profits, to recruit learners, oversee mentorships, and operate OJT and classroom instruction known as related training instruction (RTI). Currently, American unions and trade associations compose the bulk of intermediaries but mostly work within the construction industry, even as apprenticeships are extending beyond traditional sectors.


Faced with the workforce training ecosystem’s disorganization, intermediaries hoping to start apprenticeships are forced to seek approval from multiple governing bodies, employer to employer and region to region. Therefore, even the employers who choose to offload apprenticeship responsibility to third parties cannot escape the drawn-out launch process.

Furthermore, employers able to operate apprenticeships are still tasked with maintaining business flow, and the dual responsibilities lead to and supervision issues. Many trade businesses work with “tight margins and shifting contracts” that hinder staffing availability to monitor work-based learning (WBL) programs. Needing to preserve revenue, employers become anxious about losing productivity when staff members spend parts of their workdays guiding apprentices.


Partly as a result, employers are frugal regarding who they are willing to offer apprenticeships to, cutting off opportunities to some. Employers, despite being eager to introduce youth to skilled occupations, carry little faith in career technical education (CTE) providers such as K-12 institutions and community colleges that youth go through to gain baseline skill sets. As a result, employers are hesitant to offer apprenticeships to learners lacking real-world experience in the workforce. Students who have undergone CTE training, however, yearn for a chance to apply their classroom knowledge and gain the very work experience that employers see them lacking, creating a circle of miscommunication between the supply (employer) and demand (learner) entities of the apprenticeship system.


Employers hoping to provide high school apprenticeships, specifically, face additional structural challenges. The standard high school bell schedule does not leave room for early morning and mid-day apprenticeships. Younger students lack transportation options to reach their training. Child labor laws in certain states prohibit high school-aged participation in skilled trades-WBL.

Why Apprenticeships

The value of apprenticeships lies in their unique format: rather than solely gaining classroom knowledge, learners get to apply their learning in a real-world environment. Apprenticeships under the Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeships program possess five characteristics: paid job, on-the-job learning, classroom learning, mentorship, and credentials.

By embodying a WBL framework, apprenticeships are free of transfers and inter-job transitions.

In a comprehensive solution for America’s labor shortages, apprenticeships simultaneously fill in skill and experience gaps.


Someone who participates in an apprenticeship can be rewarded an extra $250,000 of lifetime income. Better yet, apprentices pay nothing for the knowledge they gain.

Unsurprisingly, former apprentices report a greater satisfaction with their learning experiences than college graduates. Contrary to entry-level employees, apprentices receive on-the-job training and mentorships, entering an established career ladder and gaining a degree of socioeconomic mobility.


Ongoing Efforts

Current efforts to increase apprenticeship presence in the United States largely generates through grassroots institutions. The Center for American Progress performed a report investigating five case-study institutions operating a distinct apprenticeship model.


Certain non-profit organizations, such as Vermont HITEC, educate apprentices and then place them in desirable occupations. MAT2, embodying an industry-driven approach, is a network of small- and medium-sized manufacturers working to offer German-style apprenticeships. The SIEU Healthcare NW Training Partnership, promoting cross-sector communication, operates as a nonprofit school working with employers to provide in-demand job skill training. Similarly, the NIMS Certified Registered Apprenticeship program collaborates with employers to create apprenticeships that teach applicable and industry-recognized credentials.


Some institutions incentivize employers into start apprenticeships. For example, the intermediary Apprentice Carolina offers employers marketing and technical assistance in conjunction with employer tax credits, drawing 700 employers to sponsor apprenticeships through its services. In 2022, the intermediary had 902 registered apprenticeships, with large corporations such as The 3M Company, Caterpillar Inc., and Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association. Apprenticeship Carolina sponsors apprenticeships of all 950 DOL-registered occupations, and the intermediary works to register any outlying occupation through consultation services.


The United States government has introduced legislation regulating the apprenticeship ecosystem. Former president Donald Trump established Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) through an executive order in 2017. IRAPs are “developed and delivered” by trade unions, corporations, non-profits, and educational institutions. The DOL Office of Apprenticeship Administrator then recognizes third-party entities, called Standards Recognition Entities (SREs), to evaluate an apprenticeship program’s adherence to DOL standards. IRAPs, in summary, help employers navigate regulations confidently.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), in another example, provides funding for apprenticeships by supporting on-the-job learning and related technical instruction. The WIOA of 2022 amends that “apprenticeship” be an option for state as a type of program to list in their workforce development plans.


Future Action

The general American public needs to realize that apprenticeships are not sub-par to four-year college degrees as a path to achieving career security and mobility. The non-profit Apprenticeships for America, for example, strives to educate schools, parents, and students on the benefits and merits of apprenticeships. If students, educators, and parents can be convinced that apprenticeships still lead to college degrees, are financially rewarding, and provide clear career trajectories, the demand side of the model will increase astronomically.

Furthermore, educators and employers need to collaborate more closely to ensure that career technical education (CTE) gives students the precise pre-requisite skills that apprenticeships expect. Strengthened networks of non-profits, community colleges, career centers, and corporations, for example, could encourage constant discussion among the apprenticeship system’s educators and employers to ensure that all CTE curriculums meet updated skill standards.


Most American employers are not actively launching apprenticeships on their own, instead relying on intermediaries to “sell” apprenticeships to them. If the government provides more resources to intermediaries through funding, for example, many of the systemic issues that employers and learners face can be solved. Intermediaries can facilitate apprentice recruitment, supply apprenticeship staff for employers, mediate communication between CTE providers and employers, supplement transportation infrastructure, and collaborate with schools, employers, labor representatives, and researchers to create the most applicable and competitive apprenticeship curriculums.

In efforts to accommodate high school apprentices, policy makers wield the most power. Schools can be encouraged to institute innovative scheduling and credit options. Schools and employers must also understand their respective roles within the WBL model; if state laws and regulations exist to guide and regulate their collaboration, logistical roadblocks can be alleviated.


Those hoping to give apprentices a competitive edge in the job recruiting process can consider two things. First, many employers that require bachelor’s degrees for their workers claim that four-year colleges teach “soft skills,” which vocational and technical degrees do not guarantee. Therefore, apprenticeships, in addition to offering OJT and RTI curriculums, should incorporate certified lessons on verbal communication, writing skills, organizational skills, professionalism, and critical thinking. Second, apprenticeship operators should work to forecast developing job fields and then educate learners on the associated skills ahead of time, ensuring that apprentices become the first and most qualified applicants for those jobs.

If students, educators, and parents can be convinced that apprenticeships still lead to college degrees, are financially rewarding, and provide clear career trajectories, the demand side of the model will increase astronomically.

Conclusion

A historically small-scale workforce development model, the United States apprenticeship system remains in the developing stage, yet to gain the spotlight in the American public eye. However, as efforts from educators, employers, and lawmakers advance, the United States steps closer to the day when “apprenticeship” appears on the standard list of post-secondary education options for learners of all career aspirations.


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