Addressing the skills gap in America through apprenticeships
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In Washington, the most common conversation topic should be a simple one: jobs.

How do we create more of them? How do we prepare Americans for the jobs that are already available? How do we ensure those jobs provide a decent wage and good benefits?

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In Congress, these conversations often lead to discussions on the importance of expanding early childhood education, strengthening our public schools, and making college more affordable. And to be sure, those investments are critical.

But let’s not forget about another straightforward, proven way to train Americans for well-paying jobs and lifelong careers: apprenticeships, sometimes called “the other four-year degree.”

According to the National Skills Coalition, there are 5.9 million job openings in the United States, and 6.6 million unemployed Americans. The skills gap is a major reason why these jobs continue to go unfilled, especially for those jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree. But apprenticeships can help address this.

As a U.S. senator from Delaware who spent ten years in county government, and as the expert craftsmen and women of This Old House, we’ve seen firsthand that apprenticeships can help address these issues. Apprenticeships are one of our oldest forms of education—and still one of the smartest investments we can make.

An apprenticeship is basically a degree that nearly guarantees you a well-paying job and a clear career path after graduation. It’s a program that gives you experience that employers demand and teaches you skills that last a lifetime. It’s a program that provides a paycheck while you’re still in training and doesn’t rack up debt while you’re at it.

Sure, you might have to work weekends and nights. You might have to complete thousands of hours of on-the-job training and hundreds of more hours in the classroom. It doesn’t sound like a typical college or university curriculum, right? That’s because it’s not.

Apprenticeships are programs that provide on-the-job training and instruction for workers in highly-skilled occupations across a range of industries, such as manufacturing, construction, health care support, and information technology. After apprentices complete their programs, they receive industry credentials and are set up for a job with the employer union or association that sponsored the program.

These programs are challenging, time-intensive, and competitive. But they work.

Ask Steve Dignan from Delaware. More than 30 years ago, he entered the construction industry as an apprentice at his company. He worked his way up to the title of project manager and eventually bought the company that he worked for. Today, he is the president and CEO of that company, Nickle Electrical Companies.

Ask Nathan Gilbert from East Bridgewater, Mass. He built his career around on-the-job learning, starting with five years of Seabee overseas, followed by apprenticing with the experts at This Old House and their program, Generation Next. Today, Nathan runs his own carpentry business, completing millwork installation for homes in Martha’s Vineyard.

Steve and Nathan aren’t the exceptions; they’re the rule. Right now, students across the country with career and technical education are more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials. In fact, more than 90 percent of those who complete apprenticeships land jobs with annual wages that exceed $60,000. 

Data shows that apprenticeships provide an important option for today’s students. The thousands of hours of on-the-job experience produce apprentices with a keen understanding of the techniques and the tools they need to do their jobs—making them safer, more skilled, and more productive employees.

Nevertheless, despite the many benefits of apprenticeships, many programs are underfunded due to a poor understanding and negative perceptions of the skilled trades. Employers in industries that haven’t traditionally had apprenticeship programs still remain skeptical about incorporating apprenticeships as a means to recruit, train and hire new employees.

Because of these barriers, it is essential that policymakers and businesses find ways to support apprenticeship programs in their states. Too often in the Senate we define “education” too narrowly. We talk about education as a ticket to the middle class—but we don’t include apprenticeship programs. That has to change.

We need to find ways to dramatically increase the number of apprenticeships in the United States. That’s why I’m proud to announce my new initiative to grow and expand highly successful Apprenticeship Hubs across America, which work to create new registered apprenticeship programs in high growth industry sectors. These hubs will help to address local economic needs and fill local skill gaps—issues that every member of the Senate should advocate for.

My home state of Delaware recognizes the value of apprenticeships, and has initiated Delaware Pathways, an Apprenticeship Hub that convenes education and workforce leaders in the state and leverages community support to broaden career pathways for youth by developing new apprenticeship programs in a variety of occupations.

Apprenticeships have a huge return on investment, with some analyses indicating returns of $23 for every dollar spent by the government. Budgets are tight, and all of us in the federal government are looking for smart, cost-effective investments that create jobs and help revitalize the American economy. That’s why apprenticeship programs deserve our continued support.

Coons is junior senator from Delaware. Kevin O’Connor is Host of "This Old House", Norm Abram is Master Carpenter at "This Old House", Richard Trethewey is Plumbing and Heating Expert on "This Old House"; Tom Silva is General Contractor of "This Old House", Roger Cook is Landscape Contractor of "This Old House", and Nathan Gilbert is a Generation Next Apprentice.