American Apprenticeship and Beyond

When Americans think of apprenticeship, their thoughts more often turn to reality television than worker training. It’s no wonder: Despite a centuries-long history and federal support dating back to the 1930s, apprenticeship is vastly underutilized in the United States. As a result, many Americans are unfamiliar with apprenticeships and how they operate.

That may be beginning to change. The Obama administration has just awarded $175 million in American Apprenticeship Grants, which will be administered by the U.S. Department of Labor and used to establish and expand proven and promising apprenticeship models. These grants will not only support a number of new activities to expand apprenticeship; they will also serve as a model that can galvanize states, localities, and industry to test new approaches to promoting and utilizing apprenticeship as a workforce development strategy.

Apprenticeship is a time-tested, proven worker-training strategy that pairs on-the-job training with classroom instruction and allows workers to earn a wage while they learn. As concerns from U.S. employers about a skills gap and an aging workforce intensify, apprenticeship programs represent an obvious solution to current and anticipated worker shortages.

Apprenticeships provide benefits to both workers and employers. Employers get a pipeline of workers who are trained to meet their specific needs, which can lead to increased productivity and a stronger bottom line. Indeed, 97 percent of U.S. apprenticeship sponsors—private employers who offer apprenticeships—would recommend apprenticeship programs. For workers, apprenticeships offer the opportunity to earn a wage while learning on the job, freeing them from the difficult choice of pursuing additional education or providing for themselves or their families in the short term. Because they are directly linked to private-sector demand, apprenticeships prepare workers with in-demand skills that can lead to significant increases in their lifetime earnings. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the post-apprenticeship employment rate is more than 87 percent and the average starting salary tops $50,000 per year.

Recognizing the largely untapped potential for apprenticeship in the United States, President Barack Obama has called for doubling the number of U.S. apprentices within the next five years. The American Apprenticeship Grants will jump-start that effort by providing $175 million to 46 public-private partnerships to develop or expand high-quality, effective apprenticeship programs. These grants will be used to complement and build on efforts by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship to extend the reach of apprenticeship programs. While apprenticeship has historically been concentrated in a handful of sectors, these awards will be used to launch programs in a broad range of in-demand fields, including information technology, health care, and advanced manufacturing.

The U.S. Department of Labor expects that a minimum of 34,000 new apprentices will be trained through the initiative. While this is a promising start, this investment alone will not achieve the president’s goal. Nor will it put the United States in line with other countries—such as Germany and the United Kingdom—that have more advanced apprenticeship programs and policies. At the federal level, policymakers have demonstrated a willingness to go further on apprenticeship. This year, President Obama’s budget included a request for $2 billion to establish an Apprenticeship Training Fund. Meanwhile, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced the Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs Act, or LEAP Act, which would establish a federal tax credit for employers who hire new apprentices. Unfortunately, neither of these proposals have received consideration in Congress.

If apprenticeship is to take hold in the United States, it will require increased investment and new policies on the federal level. However, state and local governments, along with employers—even those without American Apprenticeship funding—need not wait for those investments to materialize in order to establish a strong foundation to develop and scale up apprenticeship programs. There are a number of policies that state and local governments can enact and actions that industry can take now to support apprenticeships, many of which the Center for American Progress advocated for in a recent report.

Read the entire article by Angela Hanks at the Center for American Progress.