The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 3, 2016

Six things states should know about apprenticeships

May 3, 2016

The White House and the Department of Labor recently announced a $90 million investment in apprenticeships, an approach to workforce training that has enjoyed great success in the United Kingdom but is still struggling to catch on in the United States. Those $90 million will be doled out to states, businesses, and nonprofits in the hopes of increasing access to apprenticeships and diversifying the types of apprenticeships available and the types of young people who become apprentices. 

Urban Institute fellow Robert Lerman has written extensively on the benefits of apprenticeships, providing evidence that they are a cost-effective way to increase productivity and skills. Apprenticeships can benefit young people by teaching them a trade in a hands-on environment and giving them a mentor, and can benefit businesses by providing highly trained employees. With the announcement of the administration’s investment in apprenticeships, Lerman talked about what states and workforce development groups need to know to win and maximize their grants.  

  1. To be successful, an apprenticeship program has to be sustainable. While Lerman called the $90 million from the Department of Labor a good start, he added that it is not enough to elevate apprenticeship to the level he would like to see. “Developing change of the scale that I envisage is going to take time, so the most important thing is that funding be sustained and that a whole range of federal and state programs supporting occupational education and training become more friendly to apprenticeship,” Lerman said.
  2. States should build an apprenticeship system, rather than fund individual apprenticeship programs. Lerman hopes states will build robust, sustainable systems. Those systems should cover many occupations, provide more opportunities to young people, be embraced by and useful to employers, have a quality assurance check, and use existing funding for vocational programs to ensure they are sustainable.
  3. States should learn from apprenticeship programs that work but also be ready to think outside the box. Apprenticeship systems in the United States, Lerman said, are often conflated with the construction trade’s apprenticeship system. Apprenticeships thrive in this sector, but not all elements of a building apprenticeship will apply to apprenticeships in other fields. Bringing in representatives from other fields and considering different trades’ demands when developing apprenticeship programs will help ensure that the training fits the employers’ and apprentices’ needs.
  4. Community colleges can play a role in apprenticeship programs, but that role shouldn’t be a critical one. While some workforce development experts believe apprenticeships should be linked to college credit, Lerman thinks otherwise. “It can be counterproductive because apprenticeships themselves should stand as high-quality options” that are prestigious and hard to get into, he said. Rather than mandate college credit for apprenticeships, states should allow for stand-alone apprenticeships that aren’t necessarily affiliated with colleges, Lerman said. Community colleges, then, could compete with these stand-alone programs to link themselves to employers. That, he said, would ensure that young people have access to whatever option would best suit their needs and learning style.
  5. Education is still an essential part of an apprenticeship, even if it isn’t done in a traditional college. Lerman argues that the off-job component of an apprenticeship—the classroom instruction that helps apprentices do their job—should be funded by the government, because the skills gained are not specific to one company and because the government subsidizes other forms of education.
  6. The biggest challenge facing apprenticeship programs is finding employers to partner with, and the verdict is still out on how best to recruit companies. Most good apprenticeship programs have far more applicants than slots, Lerman said, so finding new companies to partner with is critical. Yet, there’s no agreement on whether it’s best to recruit companies through an industry-based group, to target individual companies, or to take a different approach entirely. Lerman pointed to South Carolina’s model, which uses tax credits and “a very capable group of salespeople” to entice companies to consider apprenticeship programs. Other promising approaches might include involving private colleges, community colleges, or placement agencies in the recruitment process. “The question is, how do you get companies to establish slots, and quality slots? We need some experimentation here in the United States,” Lerman said.

Students of the Lanier Technical College Motorsports Vehicle Technology program at Oakwood, Ga., work in the garage area Wednesday, May 10, 2006. The program offers a select group of students training to become skilled auto technicians to work on the growing number of racecar crew teams popping up thropughout the country. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe)

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