Apprenticeships: Popular in Concept, Challenged in Implementation

There are few programs that receive as much widespread support and praise from policymakers as apprenticeship programs.  Red states and blue states alike back the concept of apprenticeship and 95% of employers that host apprentices highly rate the experience.  International studies suggest that for every dollar spent on an apprentice, employers gain back an average of $1.47 in increased productivity, reduced waste, and greater front-line innovation.   Because apprenticeships are an “earn while you learn” approach that combines on-the-job training with classroom instruction, the individuals that enter these programs finish highly skilled, with zero debt, and with a 90% likelihood of being employed upon completion in a job that earns well above a living wage.

Yet despite the numerous advantages of having a strong apprenticeship structure in place, the United States lags significantly behind its potential for expanding this critical pathway to high skill, high wage jobs.  Whereas there are currently over 500,000 federally registered apprenticeships in this country, Germany, with an economy one-quarter of the size of the United States, reports 1.4 million.

Expanding apprenticeships has become an executive priority in recent years.  Before then, federal funds for apprenticeships were awarded in small grants.  In 2015, Obama awarded $175 million in grants, the first-ever programmatic funding for registered apprenticeships.  Earlier this summer, President Trump made a verbal commitment to expand the number of apprenticeships to 5 million in five years, pledging $200 million to the effort in the federal budget.  Apprenticeships are indeed growing, up significantly from the 375,000 reported nationally in FY 2013.

Approximately 15%, or 76,000 of the country’s apprentices are registered in California.  Most apprenticeships in California and in Los Angeles County specifically are in the building and construction trades as public works projects require the employment of apprentices.  In March, for example, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to expand the number of trade apprentices employed on county construction projects.  To encourage the growth of apprenticeships to other industries, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office started providing seed money to colleges that create programs in new industries such as hospitality and cybersecurity.  The community college system plays a key role in these programs, as campuses such as Los Angeles Trade Technical College often partner with employers to provide classroom instruction for program participants.

Expanding this employment pathway to its true potential will require not only substantially more funding in the years to come, but also strategies to address the following key barriers to scale:

  • Significant Change and Upfront Commitment for Employers:  Employers must invest substantial time and resources in the initial creation of an apprenticeship program. The typical 3-4 year timeframe for the program requires detailed planning for training and the commitment of mentors to guide on-the-job experiences. Expanding into industries beyond the building and construction trades, such as in technology, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare, can stall because of the planning involved.  Case in point, former California Labor Department Director Michael Bernick recently published a piece in Forbes highlighting the challenges the tech-based workforce intermediary Transmosis faced in getting employers to adopt the new structure in cybersecuity.  Despite initial enthusiasm from employers, IT hiring managers found that HR was not prepared to welcome apprentices as they did not have formal rules or structures for them, as opposed to direct hires or interns. Furthermore, hiring managers were skeptical of employing individuals who lacked job experience to engage in critical work at the company.

The resource commitment and shifts required are particularly prohibitive for small to mid-size employers.  Over 95% of business establishments in LA County are comprised of less than 50 employees.  Workforce intermediaries, such as industry associations, unions, nonprofits, workforce development boards, and community colleges are critical in encouraging the creation and support of apprentices in these smaller companies.  These intermediaries can pool resources, coordinating across employers to identify job candidates, design the program, and deliver training.

  • Limited Exposure in Secondary Schools:  Whereas the average age of an apprentice in a European country is in the teens, the average age of an apprentice in the United States is 27.  The difference?  The pathway to apprenticeship is embedded in their secondary schools where over two-thirds of students participate in apprenticeships.  Employers are heavily involved in creating relevant programs and curriculum.  Career and Technical Education (CTE), where apprenticeship training occurs, is finally making its way back to secondary schools in California after vocational education was rolled back for a time due to concerns about tracking.  Still, significant resources and effort are needed to build out these pathways and engage employers in the process. For now, apprenticeship training tends to take place in Adult Education in LA County and the career focus in secondary schools is on attending a 4-year college.  That is a missed opportunity for students who choose not to attend college, but need additional training for a skilled job.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, countries with vocational education programs have a strong track record for keeping youth unemployment low.
  • Cultural Perception (Or Lack Thereof) of Apprenticeship:  Building pathways to willing employers requires individuals aware and interested in those pathways. Unfortunately, enrollment in CTE has been stagnant for the last decade.  A report by Advance CTE, an organization that represents leaders of state CTE programs, found that the program still has limited awareness and outdated perceptions among students and their parents.  This approach to learning is still hampered by the old stigma that it is a pathway to blue-collar work for students who are not college material.  At the same time, those that do enroll in CTE report higher levels of satisfaction with the high school experience and are more likely to graduate.

In July, the California Community College System began the rollout of a $6 million rebranding effort for CTE.  The effort aims to build awareness among students who are not familiar with CTE program options and demonstrate how CTE can pay off for students.  The system conducted qualitative research last year that revealed lack of awareness was the largest barrier to enrollment

Taking apprenticeship from a popular concept to a sizable pathway to high quality jobs requires peeling back these barriers to expansion, both through targeted funding and policy changes.  That will take a concerted effort at both the federal and local level to address the barriers faced by employers, secondary schools, and the culture at large.  While there are signs of progress in the right direction, significant work remains.