Apprenticeships Back to the Future

Largely overlooked by policymakers, educators, and the public, apprenticeships offer a promising route for preparing large numbers of students for high-skilled jobs and professions.

Concern about the rising costs of college education, the growing need for remedial and developmental education among new college students, and the low persistence and graduation rates among at-risk students have prompted education officials and policymakers to look for ways to fix college. But maybe college is not broken. Perhaps the real problem is that too many students enroll in college not because they want to be there, or because they are enthusiastic about learning, or because they believe that college will provide the right kind of learning experience. Instead, they enroll because they lack other career preparation alternatives.

Pressure to go to college can be great. Students may have heard from parents, high-school staff, elected officials, and the media that only by going to college can they enjoy a financially secure future and social prestige. Sometimes, even against their better judgment, students decide to give college a try (or a second or third try) without fully understanding the personal commitment they must make to be successful in higher education.

Compounding matters, the college experience may not be a good fit for all students. Some have educational gaps from high school that make them ill-prepared for advanced academics. Some have families or must work to make ends meet, and these demands can leave precious little time for studies. For some, the classroom is never going to provide the optimal learning environment, because they learn best by engaging in activities that yield tangible products. Such kinesthetic learners learn best by doing, and many college programs provide little doing time relative to listening or reading time.

Rather than trying to fix college, or fix students, a more effective approach would be to expand the postsecondary options available so that each student can find the right path to success based on his or her personal and professional goals, life circumstances, learning style, and academic preparedness. Apprenticeship programs offer one such alternative. Put simply, apprenticeship programs can efficiently and effectively prepare students for jobs in a variety of fields.

Many other countries already have learned this lesson. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, apprenticeships are a critical part of the secondary education system, and most students complete an apprenticeship even if they plan to pursue postsecondary education in the future. It is not uncommon for German or Swiss postsecondary institutions to require students to complete an apprenticeship before enrolling in a tertiary education program. In this way, apprenticeships are an important part of the education continuum, including for engineers, nurses, teachers, finance workers, and myriad other professionals.

In the United States, however, apprenticeships generally have been considered to be labor programs for training students to work in the skilled trades or crafts. They are not viewed as education programs, so they have not become a conventional part of most secondary or postsecondary systems or programs. This leaves untapped a rich opportunity for the nation, as well as for the host of students who might find an apprenticeship to be an attractive route into the future.

Apprenticeship advantages

An apprenticeship is a formal, on-the-job training program through which a novice learns a marketable craft, trade, or vocation under the guidance of a master practitioner. Most apprenticeships include some degree of theoretical classroom instruction in addition to hands-on practical experience. Classroom instruction can take place at the work site, on a college campus, or through online instruction in partnership with public- or private-sector colleges.

Some apprenticeships are offered as one-year programs, though most span three to six years and require apprentices to spend at least 2,000 hours on the job. Apprentices are paid a wage for the time they spend learning in the workplace. Some apprenticeship sponsors also pay for time spent in class, whereas others do not. Some sponsors cover the costs associated with the classroom-based portion, whereas others require apprentices to pay tuition out of their wages. All of these details are part of the apprenticeship contract, which provides the apprentice with a clear understanding of the requirements of the program, the expectations of the apprentice, and the obligations of the sponsor, including wages and tuition support.

Unlike in the traditional college setting, where students may be forced to complete years of theoretical training before having the opportunity to apply that knowledge to a practical challenge or problem, apprentices participate in real work from the first day of their programs. This alignment between theoretical and practical learning is likely to improve student mastery, and the challenges that arise naturally in the workplace provide authentic opportunities to cultivate critical thinking skills in ways that the contrived classroom environment cannot. Additionally, master practitioners may be a more credible source of information and training to some students than are academics who may not have direct experience working in the field for which they are preparing students.

Apprenticeships also aid learners by surrounding them with ready-made role models and mentors who help the novices develop and refine their skills, while also introducing them to the culture of the work environment and the mores of the field for which they are training. Apprentices have an opportunity to see firsthand what is required for career advancement and to observe the personal characteristics common among those who have been successful in the field. Importantly, in the workplace apprentices also are likely to learn not just how to use a piece of equipment but also how to maintain and repair it. This rarely occurs in the traditional classroom setting.

On a practical level, apprenticeships provide students who must earn income while in school with the opportunity to engage in work that supports and reinforces learning rather than distracting from it. Students who attend traditional colleges but who must also work considerable hours outside of school often feel torn between the demands of work and the demands of school, which are generally unrelated. For apprentices, on the other hand, school is work and work is school, so learning and working occupy the same space and time, rather than competing for attention.

Current U.S. programs

Apprenticeship programs do exist in the United States, but they are vastly underused, poorly coordinated, nonstandardized, and undervalued by students, parents, educators, and policymakers. The first successful federal legislative effort to promote and coordinate apprenticeships was the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937, commonly known as the Fitzgerald Act. This act treated apprentices not as students but as laborers, and it authorized the Department of Labor (DOL) to establish minimum standards to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of apprentice workers. The DOL still retains oversight responsibility through its Office of Apprenticeships, but the office receives an anemic annual appropriation of around $28 million.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in promoting wide-scale implementation of high-quality apprenticeship programs in the United States centers on reversing the public perception that only people with a college education will enjoy satisfying and financially rewarding employment.

Among its activities, the Office of Apprenticeships administers the Registered Apprenticeship program. Sponsors of registered apprenticeships include, for the most part, employers or groups of employers, often in partnership with labor unions. Sponsors recruit and hire apprentices, determine the content for training, identify partners for classroom instruction, and develop formal agreements with apprentices regarding the skills to be taught and learned, wages to be paid, and requirements of classroom instruction. In each state, the DOL supports a state apprenticeship agency that certifies apprenticeship sponsors, issues certificates of completion to apprentices, monitors the safety and welfare of apprentices, and ensures that women and minorities are not victims of discriminatory practices.

In 2007, the latest year for which data are available, there were approximately 28,000 Registered Apprenticeship programs involving approximately 465,000 apprentices. Most of the programs were in a handful of fields and industries, including construction and building trades, building maintenance, automobile mechanics, steamfitting, machinist, tool and dye, and child care.

For much of the past decade, the DOL has been working with various federal agencies and external constituencies to explore the feasibility of expanding the use of registered apprenticeships to train workers for health care fields. A recent department report indicates that since the beginning of this effort, apprenticeship programs have been developed in 40 health care occupations, with the total number of programs increasing to 350 from around 200. The DOL continues to work with several large industry partners to develop apprenticeship programs in clinical care, nursing management, and health care information technology. But the department acknowledges that many employers in the health care industry remain unaware of the Registered Apprenticeship program or do not understand the benefits that such training offers.

The DOL also sees opportunities for expanding the role of registered apprenticeships to train workers in green technologies and processes. However, stakeholders have expressed concern about the growing need to provide pre-apprenticeship training in order to increase the number and diversity of qualified applicants to apprenticeship programs. In particular, stakeholders have highlighted the need to provide early training in mathematics, science, writing, computer literacy, and customer service to many applicants, and in particular to women and to young people from impoverished communities, in order to help them qualify for apprenticeship programs.

Moving to larger scales

Some of the promise of registered apprenticeships can be seen in their track record. In a 2007 survey commissioned by the DOL, sponsors of registered apprenticeships were asked what they valued, disliked, or would like to see changed about the programs. In general, sponsors said they were largely pleased and would strongly recommend registered apprenticeships to others. In one common positive theme, sponsors reported that the programs had high completion rates on the part of their apprentices: 40% of sponsors reported completion rates of 90 to 100%, 21% reported completion rates of 70 to 89%, and 17% reported completion rates of 50 to 69%. Sponsors also said that the use of current employees to train new workers was not too costly or burdensome. Some sponsors were concerned about trained apprentices being poached by other employers, but not enough to see this as a deterrent to apprentice sponsorship.

Improvements appear to be needed, however, before registered apprenticeship programs can be moved to a larger scale. Critical issues to address include developing mechanisms to improve the rigor, quality, and consistency of the programs; elevating the status of the credentials granted; standardizing elements of the curriculum and assessment systems to ensure better transferability of credentials; developing pathways that will enable apprentices to seamlessly apply their credential toward an undergraduate or advanced degree; and perhaps most important, improving public perception of apprenticeship programs by refuting the longstanding myths that apprenticeships serve individuals with low abilities who are destined for dead-end jobs.

Apprenticeships should be developed for occupations traditionally associated with a liberal arts education. It is shortsighted to assume that only economically disadvantaged or low-achieving students can benefit from apprenticeship training.

In looking to address such challenges, the United States might look to the Swiss model, one of the most successful in the world. In Switzerland, almost 70% of students between the ages of 16 and 19 participate in dual-enrollment vocational education and training (VET) programs, which require students to go to school for one to two days per week and spend the rest of their time in paid on-the-job training programs that last three to four years. Although the Swiss VET model is primarily a secondary school program, many of the principles on which it operates could be incorporated into the U.S. postsecondary apprenticeship system.

There are numerous advantages for students enrolled in VET programs, including the ability to earn a wage while learning, experience a career before making a lifetime commitment, and learn under the guidance of a master practitioner. Beyond that, VET programs may have added social benefits in that 16-year-olds might be influenced to make better decisions when surrounded by mature and experienced mentors and colleagues, as opposed to when they are cloistered among their peers.

The Swiss VET model does not ignore the importance of developing core theoretical knowledge in addition to applied vocational knowledge. On the contrary, students are required to enroll in general education and vocational education classes taught in local vocational schools and in industry learning centers, in addition to participating in the on-the-job training programs. Critical to the success of the VET system are the careful collaboration and coordination between workplace trainers and school-based educators, who work hard to ensure alignment between what the students are learning in school and at work.

Apprentices are subjected to regular assessments in the classroom and on the job, culminating in final exams associated with certification. In 2008, the completion rate for Swiss apprentices was 79%, and the exam pass rate among program completers was 91%. One of the main benefits of the Swiss apprenticeship system is that nearly 70% of all students participate in it, which means that students of all socioeconomic and ability levels are engaged in this form of learning. Such widespread involvement prevents the social stigmatization of apprenticeship programs, unlike in the United States where social prestige is almost exclusively preserved for college-based education and training. Moreover, because students entering dual-track VET programs are frequently high performers, they are academically indistinguishable from the students who elect university education rather than vocational training or dual education. As a result, Swiss dual-track VET students are likely to enter the workplace well prepared for work by possessing strong academic skills.

Changing perceptions

With the Swiss model illustrating the promise, a number of needs stand out. Perhaps the greatest challenge in promoting wide-scale implementation of high-quality apprenticeship programs in the United States centers on reversing the public perception that only people with a college education will enjoy satisfying and financially rewarding employment. Public policy officials and education leaders are quick to tell students that a college degree practically guarantees higher lifetime earnings, when, in fact, there is no evidence that such is the case for a given individual.

Much of the rhetoric around lifetime earnings is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2002 report The Big Payoff, which projected future worklife earnings based on wage data collected during 1998, 1999, and 2000. The study’s results, which suggested that those with a college degree could earn $1 million more during their work lifetime than those with just a high-school diploma, have been misconstrued by many observers to constitute a guarantee that a college degree will increase an individual’s earnings by $1 million.

People who tout the results of this survey generally neglect to disclose what the authors included in the fine print: There is a great deal of variability in earnings even among those who hold a bachelor’s degree. The majors that the students selected, their personal ambitions, the nature of the career paths they selected, their work status (full-time versus part-time and continual employment versus intermittent), and their individual efforts all have a significant impact on their actual wages. In other words, the average earning level of individuals with a bachelor’s degree in business or engineering might be well above that of a similarly educated teacher, social worker, journalist, or dancer if they remain in the field for which they trained. What the report actually shows is that the big payoff comes to those who earn a professional degree, such as a medical or law degree.

Unfortunately, the report aggregates all workers without a college degree into a single category, failing to distinguish between those in the skilled trades and craftspeople who have high earning potentials, versus unskilled laborers who tend to earn the lowest wages. A more reasoned approach would have been to disaggregate workers without college degrees by occupation and skill level, similar to the way the study authors disaggregated college-educated workers by level of degree attainment.

Another report commonly cited as justification for college completion is the Department of Commerce’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. Those who emphasize the importance of a college degree generally refer to the report’s projections of the top 20 fastest-growing careers, of which 12 require an associate’s degree or higher, as the reason that everyone should earn a college credential. However, the percentage of growth is not the important number, because small occupations might experience a high growth rate while creating relatively few new jobs. Topping the list of fastest-growing occupations is biomedical engineers, where growth of 72% is anticipated over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, that growth rate equates to only 11,600 more jobs over that period, or only 1,160 new jobs per year. This figure should not be used to encourage students to become biomedical engineers but instead should raise serious questions about why the nation is training so many biomedical engineers when so few will probably get jobs in the field.

The important data table included in the Handbook is the one that lists the top 20 occupations projected to have the largest numerical growth. One-third of all new jobs will be in these 20 occupations, so these are the jobs for which the large majority of workers should be prepared. Only three of the occupations with the largest numerical growth appear on the list of fastest-growing professions—home health aides, personal and health care aides, and computer software applications engineers—and of those professions, only one requires a college credential. In fact, of the top 20 occupations with the largest numerical growth, only 6 require an associate’s degree or higher. Therefore, certificate and apprenticeship programs may well prove to be a much more efficient and appropriate way to train workers for the majority of new jobs that will be created during the next 10 years.

If the nation wants to create a successful apprenticeship program, it also must eliminate the stigmatization of apprenticeship programs and those who work in skilled trades. To do so, steps will be needed to ensure that Registered Apprenticeship programs are attractive to all students and not just low-income students or those who are poor performers in high school. Following the model of the Swiss, apprenticeship programs should be considered as a step along an educational continuum rather than a dead end. Moreover, apprenticeships should be developed for occupations traditionally associated with a liberal arts education, such as engineering, communications, banking, and teacher professional development. It is short-sighted to assume that only economically disadvantaged or low-achieving students can benefit from apprenticeship training. However, without a concerted public awareness and information campaign, teachers and parents are unlikely to be supportive of the apprenticeship pathway, given the policy focus on college completion.

A significant barrier to the integration of Registered Apprenticeship programs into the postsecondary system is the lack of mechanisms for evaluating student achievement and assigning academic credit for the hands-on portion of an apprentice’s training program. For example, there has been no comprehensive effort to track apprentice outcomes beyond completion of the program, so it is not known if those who complete an apprenticeship, earning the title of journeyperson, enjoy improved job security, more rapid advancement, or higher earnings than those who enter their profession through some other means, including less formal on-the-job training, high-school vocational training, or having earned a college-based certificate. Following the Swiss model, the use of outside third-party evaluators to assess student competencies may add credibility to student assessments and allow for the development of standards for awarding academic credit for apprentice activities. The United States also could adopt the Swiss system of exam-based certificates that individuals can earn to demonstrate their professional competencies and their readiness for advanced academic work.

Steps to success

The bottom line is that a well-organized, well-publicized, and well-supported national system of Registered Apprenticeship programs would address a number of growing concerns regarding the shortcomings of the current U.S. system of higher education. Dual-track apprenticeship programs that actively engage both traditional educators and master practitioners in a coordinated training and education effort have tremendous benefits for all involved. Traditional educators learn from master practitioners about real-world applications of the topics they teach. Master practitioners learn from experienced teachers how best to mentor and teach young workers.

In order to raise awareness, ensure consistent quality, and enable long-term career mobility among those who are interested in apprenticeship training, the following changes are required:

  • The DOL’s Office of Apprenticeships should develop a system similar to that of national higher education accreditors to provide oversight of apprenticeship programs based on the field for which apprentices are being trained. These bodies should be involved in the development of curricula, performance standards, and assessments of learning to ensure that apprenticeship experiences do not differ from one employer or one region to another. These bodies can also provide third-party validation of quality, which will improve the value and transportability of the completion credential.
  • The Office of Apprenticeships should create a national database to improve the dissemination of information about Registered Apprenticeship programs, including the number of opportunities available in each geographic region, the requirements of each program, and the wages provided to each participant. Information about the application and selection process should also be publicly available, and students should be able to compare the various programs through a portal similar to College Navigator, the free online tool administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education, that enables students, parents, high-school counselors, and others to get information about more than 7,000 colleges nationwide.
  • The Department of Education should be required to include information about the Registered Apprenticeship program in all of its printed materials and Web sites, including College Navigator, that are intended to help students prepare for and select a college.
  • Public policymakers should be careful to include apprenticeship training in any policies they develop or statements they make to encourage participation in postsecondary education.
  • National and regional accrediting bodies should work collaboratively to develop standards by which apprenticeship experiences can be evaluated for academic credit toward a degree in a related area.
  • Workplace-based trainers and classroom-based instructors should be required to obtain certifications, based on significant professional development requirements, to address the unique aspects of vocational education. In addition, routine collaboration between classroom and workplace instructors should be required as a condition for participation in the Registered Accreditation program.
  • The federal government should conduct and support active public information campaigns to promote the benefits of apprenticeship training, in the same way that it has invested heavily in efforts to increase college access and completion.
  • The federal government should explore the use of tax incentives to encourage greater participation by private-sector firms in the sponsorship of dual-track apprenticeship programs, especially in light of the potential savings these programs would provide to taxpayers.

There is no doubt that today’s adults need far more education than did adults who completed their compulsory education just two generations ago. But the signs are clear that traditional postsecondary education is not the only way—or in some cases the best way—to prepare all individuals for the careers they are likely to pursue. Given the challenges the nation faces in the current system of higher education, it is indeed time to look back to the future in strengthening and revitalizing the age-old model of apprenticeship training in order to prepare individuals for the jobs they are likely to hold and the higher education they may wish to pursue in the future.

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Cite this Article

Jones, Diane Auer. “Apprenticeships Back to the Future.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 4 (Summer 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Summer 2011