The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 18, 2015

Looking toward 2016: Why expanding apprenticeships should be a priority

June 18, 2015

The May election campaign for Parliament in the United Kingdom was hard fought, as the main political parties offered competing visions for taxes, price controls, and energy. Yet the candidates agreed on one key policy objective: to expand and upgrade the role of apprenticeship. The Labour manifesto called for guaranteeing an apprenticeship for every school leaver with adequate grades, while the Conservative party promised to create 3 million new apprenticeships.  

As the US presidential cycle begins, it is comforting to hear important political voices supporting apprenticeship. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton recently announced her endorsement of tax credits to employers who provide apprenticeships. That she did so in South Carolina is appropriate, given Apprenticeship Carolina’s ability to increase the sponsors of apprenticeships in South Carolina from 90 to nearly 750 firms.

Clinton lent support for a plan for tax credits similar to one offered on a bipartisan basis by Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina). Their bill, the Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs Act, would provide tax credits to employers who start apprenticeship programs or who increase the number of apprentices beyond 80 percent of their recent levels.

At least two other current or likely presidential candidates are on record favoring additional apprenticeships. Republican Senator Marco Rubio touted apprenticeships as providing valuable on-the-job training for employees, stating: “We need policies that encourage industries to expand apprenticeship programs and work more closely with their local workforce training boards to make these viable options for gaining certification or degree credit.”

Republican Governor Scott Walker’s support has translated into modest increases in spending on apprenticeship, including Wisconsin’s distinctive Youth Apprenticeship Program

Let’s hope all the candidates get on board, because apprenticeship is the most cost-effective investment the government can make to raise the skills and jobs of American workers. Apprenticeships combine serious work-based learning and classroom instruction usually lasting two to four years, aimed at mastering occupational and employability skills, and leading to a recognized credential. Countries with robust apprenticeship programs have low rates of youth unemployment and have managed to retain a much higher share of manufacturing jobs than the United States.

Studies show US apprenticeships are extraordinarily cost effective. Analyses conducted for Washington State’s Workforce Board show that taxpayers net almost three times their spending on apprenticeships within two and a half years of the program’s completion. By the time former apprentices reach age 65, benefits to taxpayers reach $23 for each dollar spent.

Political consensus for expanding apprenticeship is critical if the United States is to build a system anywhere near the levels achieved in Australia, Canada, and England. For the United States to reach the same scale would mean over 4 million apprentices, or about 10 times today’s level.

Embracing an agenda to expand apprenticeship should be appealing to both sides of the political aisle. By widening the routes to successful careers, a large-scale apprenticeship system can increase economic mobility through a productivity-enhancing strategy that does not require significant increases in government spending or higher taxes. By having employers take the lead for much of the training, apprenticeship emphasizes the private sector. By sharply reducing youth unemployment and providing opportunities for rewarding careers that emphasize learning by doing, apprenticeship can be especially effective for minority and low-income youth. 

The Obama administration has taken steps toward enhancing American apprenticeship, but we have a long way to go. Let’s hope the debate among competing US presidential candidates mirrors the British example, where candidates for prime minister argued over who could do best to expand the quantity and quality of apprenticeships. 

 

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