Expanding Apprenticeship Opportunities in the United States

Student learns about apprenticeship opportunities

Reducing inequality and expanding opportunity are central challenges increasingly acknowledged by leaders across the political spectrum. Policymakers generally agree that one key solution is to prepare young people and adults with the skills to earn a good income. Unlike other advanced countries, however, reform proposals in the United States have typically included little or nothing about apprenticeship—a highly cost-effective mechanism for developing workplace skills and for reducing youth unemployment. However, interest in apprenticeship models is building in the United States, partly because of the recent successes of Britain and South Carolina in stimulating major expansions of apprenticeship training. A robust apprenticeship system is especially attractive because of its potential to reduce youth unemployment, improve the transition from school to career, upgrade skills, raise wages of young adults, strengthen a young worker’s identity, increase U.S. productivity, achieve positive returns for employers and workers, and use limited federal resources more effectively.

Apprenticeship prepares workers to master occupational skills and achieve career success. Under apprenticeship programs, individuals undertake productive work for their employer, earn a salary, receive training primarily through supervised work‐ based learning, and take academic instruction that is related to the apprenticeship occupation. The programs generally last from two to four years. Apprenticeship helps workers to master not only relevant occupational skills, but also other work‐related skills, including communication, problem solving, allocation of resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of coworkers. The course work is generally equivalent to at least one year of community college. Completing apprenticeship training yields a recognized and valued credential attesting to mastery of skill required in the relevant occupation. Unlike the normal part-time jobs held by high school and college students, apprenticeship integrates what young people learn on the job and in the classroom. Box 7-1 describes a successful youth apprenticeship program in Georgia. (See the PDF for Box 7-1).

In some ways, apprenticeship offers an alternative to the “academic-only” college focus of U.S. policymakers. Increasingly, placing all of our career-preparation eggs in one basket is leaving young adults, especially minority young men, well behind. Among young adults ages twenty-five to thirty-four in 2013, 49 percent of all women and 37 percent of African American women had earned at least an Associate degree; for men, the comparable figures were 40 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Furthermore, in 2011–12, nearly two African American women earned a bachelor’s degree for every African American male who earned one (National Center for Education Statistics 2013). Despite the well-documented high average returns to college, variations in interests, capacities, and learning styles suggest many young people would benefit far more from alternative pathways to rewarding careers than they do from academic-only pathways. 

Apprenticeship can narrow the postsecondary achievement gaps in both gender and race. Having learning take place mostly on the job, making the tasks and classroom work highly relevant to their careers, and providing participants with wages while they learn are especially beneficial to men, particularly minority men. Apprenticeship can give minorities increased confidence that their personal efforts and investment in skill development will pay off, giving graduates a genuine sense of occupational identity and occupational pride. 

Additionally, apprenticeship is a useful tool for enhancing youth development. Young people work with natural adult mentors who offer guidance but allow youth to make their own mistakes (Halpern 2009). Youth see themselves judged by the established standards of a discipline, including deadlines and the genuine constraints and unexpected difficulties that arise in the profession. Supervisors provide the close monitoring and frequent feedback that helps apprentices keep their focus on performing well at the work site and in the classroom. 

Furthermore, apprenticeship is distinctive in enhancing both the worker supply side and the employer demand side of the labor market. On the supply side, the financial gains to apprenticeship are strikingly high. U.S. studies indicate that apprentices do not have to sacrifice earnings during their education and training and that their long-term earnings benefits exceed the gains they would have accumulated after graduating from community college (Hollenbeck 2008). The latest reports from the state of Washington show that the gains in earnings from various education and training programs far surpass the gains from all other alternatives (Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board 2014). A broad study of apprenticeship in ten states also documents large and statistically significant earnings gains from participating in apprenticeship programs (Reed et al. 2012). 

On the demand side, employers can feel comfortable upgrading their jobs knowing that their apprenticeship programs will ensure an adequate supply of well-trained workers. High levels of apprenticeship activity in Australia, Canada, and Britain demonstrate that even companies in labor markets with few restrictions on hiring, firing, and wages are willing to invest in apprenticeship training. While no rigorous evidence is available about apprenticeship’s costs and benefits to U.S. employers, research in other countries indicates that employers gain financially from their apprenticeship investments (Lerman 2014). 

In general, firms reap several advantages from their apprenticeship investments. They save significant sums in recruitment and training costs, in reduced errors in placing employees, in excessive costs when the demand for skilled workers cannot be quickly filled, and in all employees being well versed with company procedures. One benefit to firms that is rarely captured in studies is the positive impact of apprenticeship on innovation. Well-trained workers are more likely to understand the complexities of a firm’s production processes and therefore to identify and implement technological improvements, especially incremental innovations to improve existing products and processes. A study of German establishments documents this connection and finds a clear relationship between the extent of in-company training and subsequent innovation (Bauernschuster, Falck, and Heblich 2009). In the United States, evidence from surveys of more than 900 employers indicates that the overwhelming majority of them believe their programs are valuable and involve net gains (Lerman, Eyster, and Chambers 2009). Nearly all sponsors reported that apprenticeship programs help them meet their skill demands—87 percent reported that they would strongly recommend registered apprenticeship programs, and another 11 percent recommended apprenticeship programs with some reservations. Other benefits of apprenticeship include reliably documenting appropriate skills, raising worker productivity, increasing worker morale, and reducing safety problems.

While apprenticeship offers a productivity-enhancing approach to reducing inequality and expanding opportunity, activity in the United States has declined in recent years to levels about one-tenth of those in Australia, Canada, and Britain. Some believe the problems include inadequate information and familiarity with apprenticeship, an inadequate infrastructure, and expectations that sufficient skills will emerge from community college programs. Others see the main problem as an unwillingness of U.S. companies to invest, no matter how favorable government subsidies and marketing policies are. In considering these explanations, we should remember that even in countries with robust apprenticeship systems, only a minority of firms actually hires apprentices. Since the number of apprenticeship applicants already far exceeds the number of apprenticeship slots, the main problem today is to increase the number of apprenticeship openings that employers offer. Counseling young people about potential apprenticeship opportunities is a sensible complementary strategy to working with the companies, but encouraging interest in apprenticeship could be counterproductive without a major increase in apprenticeship slots. 

Developing a more robust support system for apprenticeship programs requires action at various levels of government. This proposal consists of a series of targeted initiatives that rely on both state and federal support. At the state level, governments could develop marketing campaigns to persuade employers to create apprenticeship programs, and to build on existing youth apprenticeship programs. At the federal level, the government could provide federal subsidies to encourage take-up of existing vouchers for apprenticeship programs; designate occupational standards for apprenticeship through a joint Office of Apprenticeship (OA)–Department of Commerce (Commerce) team; and develop an infrastructure of information, peer support, and research within the Departments of Commerce and Labor.