Making apprenticeships work
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Today’s dynamic labor market is fueling an unprecedented sense of urgency among policymakers and executives alike. The shrinking shelf life of skills has been well documented. According to LinkedIn, many of the skills needed for the country’s fastest-growing jobs (like machine learning engineer or data scientist) didn’t exist five years ago. Automation is transforming not just businesses and industries, but entire labor markets. Employers struggle to identify and hire, or develop, talent with the skills they need to compete. And as the labor market tightens, retention rates plummet and demand for skilled workers fuels costly churn.

To remain competitive, workers are under pressure to embrace an array of faster, cheaper alternatives to traditional education and training programs. Employers are, likewise, under increased pressure to transform the way they identify and develop talent. Digital credentials are giving rise to metadata that enables HR leaders to look beyond historic proxies to identify hidden talent in unconventional places. A maze of employment technologies tap the potential of AI and machine learning to sort and filter candidates based on likely job outcomes.


But not all of today’s workforce innovations are rooted in the transformative potential of technology. As it turns out, the apprenticeship model -- with origins in the European craft guilds of the Middle Ages -- is gaining currency in the United States among both high and low-tech employers looking for better ways to identify, attract and develop talent.

Research shows that apprenticeships provide students with a remarkable return on investment: students who complete apprenticeships earn nearly $250,000 more over the course of their careers than comparable students who don’t. Apprenticeships are increasingly attractive to students focused on getting their foot on a career ladder – and attaining some initial economic security – while minimizing student debt. Rather than paying upfront for an uncertain outcome as is our custom in higher education, you learn while already in a job.

Apprenticeships are also drawing bipartisan political support. Characterized as a “bright spot for bipartisanship,” apprenticeships are a part of a shifting policy landscape centered on bridging the gap between education and employment. Commenting on President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE’s June executive order calling for expanded apprenticeship funding, New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy made the case that “to make the most of apprenticeship, policymakers must make it part of—not an ‘alternative’ to—higher education.” This week marked the latest meeting of Labor Secretary Alexander AcostaAlex Alexander AcostaOn The Money: Trump slams relief bill, calls on Congress to increase stimulus money | Biden faces new critical deadlines after relief package | Labor rule allows restaurants to require broader tip pooling Labor rule allows restaurants to require broader tip pooling Federal litigator files complaint alleging Labor secretary abused his authority MORE’s task force, which is charged with transforming the U.S from an apprenticeship laggard to a model for how apprenticeships can play a role in realizing both enterprise -- and individual -- aspirations within a tech-driven economy.

That vision will not come easily. The U.S. would have to churn out over 7 million new apprentices each year to compete with world leaders like Switzerland. Given that the U.S. only has 400,000 non-military apprenticeships, it presents the task force with a daunting challenge -- but not an insurmountable one. Here are five recommendations for how these funds can help seed a national apprenticeship initiative with the potential to realize the administration’s vision of creating an additional 5 million apprentices by 2022. 

Promote digital apprenticeships

The most common apprenticeships in the U.S. are electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and iron and steel workers. While policymakers love to talk about training welders, few parents who attended college and work in white collar jobs are excited about sending their own offspring down an apprenticeship path that’s historically been blue collar, involving manual labor and union membership. We need a campaign to educate the public about the potential of 21st century digital apprenticeships in occupational fields as diverse as nanotechnology and the creative arts. 

Reimagine service providers

The United States needs a more robust system of Apprenticeship Service Providers (ASPs) -- intermediaries responsible for responsible for recruiting candidates, screening them, and matching them to employers. ASPs stand between employers, apprentices, and government funding sources and “hide the wiring” for all three. At this stage, apprentices are sold, not bought, and few employers are willing to adopt without something close to a turnkey apprenticeship solution.

Clarify funding

In the U.S., securing Department of Labor recognition as a registered apprenticeship may have no bearing on a local workforce board’s willingness to provide funding for training. That makes no sense. Local workforce boards should fund the cost of training for registered apprenticeships. And the federal government should balance funding for academic degree programs and apprenticeship training by allowing Pell Grants to fund apprenticeship training. 

Build apprenticeships at the industry level

At the moment, America’s approach to building apprenticeship programs is like the approach a tailor uses to make a suit. To grow apprenticeships effectively, the U.S. needs to move from a philosophy of scaling up apprenticeships one employer at a time to expansion based on getting whole industries and supply chains to scale digital apprenticeships.

Encourage the public sector to lead by example

Despite the president’s stated priorities, to our knowledge the U.S. Department of Labor employs only one apprentice. Secretary Acosta’s task force should set an aspirational goal of 1 million public sector apprenticeship starts per annum by 2022.

There is no magic bullet, but these recommendations have the potential to put the U.S. on the road to a medal position in the global skills Olympics. It would give young people a new sense of hope that training for rewarding careers can occur without incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. And it would provide American companies with the 21st century skills they so desperately need.

Ryan Craig is the author of “College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education” and the forthcoming “A New U: Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College.” Tom Bewick is President of the Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum and co-founder of Franklin Apprenticeships. This piece is inspired by the white paper, “Making Apprenticeships Work: Five Policy Recommendations.”