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Training Tomorrow's Workforce

Community College and Apprenticeship as Collaborative Routes to Rewarding Careers

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Document date: December 15, 2009
Released online: March 19, 2010


Apprenticeships in the United States are preparing over 500,000 workers for careers. Although the U.S. apprenticeship system is small relative to those in other countries, it is highly successful in raising earnings and productivity. Can these benefits be incorporated into community college and other postsecondary settings? What is the current state of apprenticeship-community college collaboration and what steps can expand such collaborations? This paper examines these questions, capturing the diversity of apprentice-community college collaboration and areas in which the two systems do and do not interact.

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Executive Summary

With nearly 15 million workers unemployed and another 9 million working part time involuntarily, the time is right to invest in upgrading the skills of many in the U.S workforce. Sound investments in skills today are likely to yield high returns in the form of added earnings and improved productivity tomorrow and well into the future. If directed at improving qualifications for middle-skill jobs, enhanced training can reduce inequality while promoting economic growth.

The president and the U.S. Congress are responding to the training agenda in a variety of ways, by increasing spending and promoting innovation in K-12 education and in post secondary college and job training programs. The Community College Initiative—part of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009—would authorize $730 million per year for several purposes. One is to fund innovative and effective programs that "... lead to the completion of a postsecondary degree, certificate, or industry-recognized credential leading to a skilled occupation in a high-demand industry..." Some of the dollars would go directly to states for reforms in community colleges.

In addition, President Barack Obama has proposed significant funding to help support construction projects to modernize facilities at community colleges. These proposed reforms reinforce recent legislation that expands college grants and loans and increases their accessibility to workers on unemployment insurance. At the same time, serious state fiscal woes have limited the budgets of community colleges and strained their capacity to serve the increasing numbers of students who wish to enroll.

Although a primary target of these interventions is to expand community colleges, the ultimate goal is to upgrade the skills of American workers and improve their prospects for rewarding careers. This paper considers a complementary approach to increasing valued and marketable skills: scaling up apprenticeship programs, especially in combination with community college and other postsecondary education programs. Apprenticeship programs train individuals to achieve the skills of a fully skilled worker through supervised, work-based learning and related academic instruction. Apprentices are employees at the firms and organizations where they combine productive work along with learning experiences that lead to demonstrated proficiency in a significant array of tasks.

Apprenticeship programs offer an array of advantages over pure postsecondary education programs. Since apprenticeship openings depend on employer demand, mismatches between skills taught and supplied and skills demanded in the work place are unusual. Apprenticeship provides workers with a full salary so that participants can earn while they acquire valued skills. Apprentices learn in the context of real work settings and attain not only occupational skills but other work-related skills, including communication, problemsolving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of coworkers.

Apprenticeship is particularly appealing as a way of integrating minorities—especially minority young men—into rewarding careers. Having learning take place mostly on the job, making the tasks and classroom work highly relevant to their careers, and providing participants wages while they learn can give minorities increased confidence that their personal efforts and investment in skill development will pay. In addition, mastering a skill by completing an apprenticeship gives graduates a genuine sense of occupational identity and occupational pride. Apprenticeship offers a respected, portable certification. These advantages help explain why many countries have been working to expand their programs significantly.

There are currently about 470,000 apprentices in programs registered with the Department of Labor and perhaps another 500,000 or more in unregistered programs. About 56 percent of registered apprentices are in construction trades and about the same share are in joint union-management programs. However, most programs are undertaken by employers. Although research on apprenticeship programs is sparse, one careful study found that both the short-term and long-term earnings gains and overall social benefits from apprenticeship training are extremely high. The lifetime return to apprenticeship training is estimated at more than double the return to community college participation.

Can these benefits of apprenticeship training be incorporated into community college and other postsecondary settings? What is the rationale for apprenticeship-community college collaboration and the current state of collaboration? What steps should be taken to expand apprenticeship and collaborations between community colleges and apprenticeship programs?

This paper examines and provides some answers to these questions. Although the paper does not capture the full the complexity and diversity of community colleges and apprenticeships in the United States, it describes examples of cases in which the two systems do and do not interact.

Collaboration between community colleges and apprenticeship programs makes sense for several reasons. Worker success in occupations requires that they gain not only content knowledge about their field but also other skills—including problem solving— used in the context of the occupation as well as on other jobs. For many occupations, community colleges are well-positioned to provide the academic-based instruction but cannot deliver the necessary nonacademic skills and occupational expertise. These require learning in the context of productive work and real operations, the type of learning that comes with apprenticeship training.

For community colleges, apprenticeships assure relevance for their students and allow students to document their abilities to perform in the workplace. In addition, they allow overcrowded, strained community colleges to offload some of their education and training to effective work-based learning under skilled supervisors. For apprenticeships, community colleges provide college credit and a college framework.

Notwithstanding the logic of collaboration, several barriers can limit the interactions between apprenticeship programs and community colleges. Sponsors of apprenticeship— usually employers but often union-employer programs—sometimes find that community colleges do not offer courses that are well-tailored to the apprentice's needs. The content may not be sufficiently specific, the equipment at the college may be dated, the courses may not be offered or may meet at times that working people find hard to accommodate, and the starting dates of semesters may not meet employer needs. It may take too long for community colleges to develop new courses that are required as new programs or new technologies in existing programs arise.

Still, the paper finds many examples of collaboration. About one-third of all apprentices obtain their academic instruction from community or technical colleges. Some apprenticeship programs—for example, several sponsored by the Utility Workers of America— require apprentices to complete an associate's degree along with their apprenticeship training. Some states— including Florida and Washington—provide tuition subsidies to community colleges for those in apprenticeship training. Community colleges often grant college credit for courses apprentices take as part of their related instruction. Many programs use community college instructors for courses held outside the school.

South Carolina, for example, offers a distinctive form of collaboration. Using a special grant from the legislature, the technical college system in South Carolina hosts the Apprenticeship Carolina initiative. Staff housed at the college system actively market apprenticeship and encourage employers to use community college and other resources for related courses. Other potential areas of collaboration are infrequent, including the granting of college credit for skills developed in apprenticeship programs and the use of community colleges as a base for recruiting potential apprenticeship sponsors.

Data on the views of employer sponsors comes from both a national sample of more than 900 apprenticeship sponsors as well as an in-depth set of interviews with a smaller number of sponsors. The interviews revealed some barriers to collaboration. One is the limited flexibility of community college courses—they are not offered enough on a regular basis and may be cancelled if the classes are too small. Other sponsors see the courses as not adequately matched to the requirements of the occupation. Although some sponsors acknowledge that obtaining a joint associate's degree would add to the apprenticeship certification, others see little added value for their workers beyond the apprenticeship credential itself. In all likelihood, however, community college certifications would add signi ficantly to the status, adaptability, and long-term earnings of apprenticeship completers.

(End of excerpt. The entire report is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Education | Employment

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