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Expanding Apprenticeship: A Way to Enhance Skills and Careers

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Document date: October 01, 2010
Released online: October 08, 2010


Apprenticeship is a time-honored method for preparing workers to master occupational skills and achieve career success. Young people reap many developmental benefits from engaging in apprenticeships. It is important to expand the scale of apprenticeship training to increase skills and help more workers enter rewarding careers. Despite substantial benefits, federal support for apprenticeship training is meager. Promoting more apprenticeship training will not only expand the effectiveness of education and training and enhance productivity, but it will also integrate many workers who prefer learning-by-doing and the earning-when-learning aspects of apprenticeship training.

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An Overview of U.S. Apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is a time-honored method for preparing workers to master occupational skills and achieve career success. Under apprenticeship programs, individuals earn a salary while receiving training primarily through supervised, work-based learning but also with related academic instruction. Employers, joint, union-employer agreements, government agencies, and the military all sponsor apprenticeship programs. Apprentices are employees at the firms and organizations where they are training, and combine productive work along with learning experiences that lead to demonstrated proficiency in a significant array of tasks. The programs usually last three to four years and require students to complete course work that includes math, verbal, and occupation-specific content. Apprenticeship helps workers to master not only relevant occupational skills but also other work-related skills, including communication, problem-solving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of co-workers. The course work is generally equivalent of at least one year of community college. In completing apprenticeship training, workers earn a recognized and valued credential attesting to their mastery of skill required in the relevant occupation.

Young people reap many developmental benefits from engaging in apprenticeships. They work with natural adult mentors who can guide them but allow them to make their own mistakes. youth see themselves judged by the established standards of a discipline, including deadlines and the genuine constraints and unexpected difficulties that arise in the profession. To quote Robert Halpern, “Young people learn through observation, imitation, trial and error, and reiteration; in other words through force of experience. Though professionalism and care are expected, perfection is not. Adult mentors hold the discipline for the apprentice, sequencing and controlling task demands to keep them on the constructive side of difficulty. They direct apprentices’ attention, demonstrate and sometimes collaborate.” Supervisors provide the close monitoring and frequent feedback that helps apprentices keep their focus on performing well at the work site and in the classroom.

Apprenticeship in the United States focuses primarily on construction and manufacturing occupations, with large scale programs in electrical, pipe-fitting, carpentry, shipbuilding, maintenance, machining, and welding. This type of training is particularly relevant today as a way of dealing with the current mismatch between available workers and openings for skilled occupations in manufacturing and other industries. Tens of thousands of apprenticeships are learning occupations in other fields as well, including utilities, auto and truck repair, police and fire, trucking, child care and long-term care. The range of occupations relying on apprenticeship training is far more extensive in several Western European countries, where apprenticeship is a mainstream route to career success, than in the United States. Apprenticeships provide training for 50 to70 percent of young people in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. The strength of Germany’s apprenticeship system contributes a great deal to their ability to maintain a vibrant, high quality manufacturing sector. Apprenticeships are also expanding rapidly in other advanced economies, including Ireland, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Apprenticeships have been extended to many occupations, including nursing, information technology, finance, and advanced manufacturing. Since apprenticeship is driven by employer demand, mismatches between skills taught and supplied and skills demanded in the work place are less likely to occur than when training is provided in school-based or community-based courses.

The U.S. apprenticeship system is highly decentralized, although most programs are governed by the “Registered Apprenticeship” system. These registered programs operate under the supervision of the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Apprenticeship (OA) and State Apprenticeship Agencies. The responsibilities of the OA include issuing certificates of completion to apprentices, protecting the safety and welfare of apprentices, providing guidance and technical assistance to program sponsors, monitoring program equal opportunity plans to prevent discrimination against women and minorities, and expanding the use of apprenticeship by employers.

As of 2008, about 27,000 registered apprenticeship sponsors were training about 480,000 apprentices. Apprentices make up only about 0.3 percent of total work force and nearly 4 percent of a cohort’s entrants to the work force. Though only a fraction of the students in colleges and universities, the number of registered apprentices is comparable to the combined number of individuals receiving training through three federally sponsored Labor Department programs: the Workforce Investment Act’s Adult and Dislocated Worker programs, a formula-funded federal program that provides local workforce boards with funds for training and other services; the Job Corps, and the Trade Adjustment Act. The Department of Labor spent almost $3.9 billion dollars on these programs in 2007, or more than 190 times more funds that was spent on the Office of Apprenticeship to promote and monitor registered apprenticeship in the U.S.

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