Evidence and Ideas for Change The power of apprenticeships
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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Spanning our yawning divides is a common belief in the value of a good job: one that fills workers with professional pride and allows them to climb the economic ladder.

Long popular overseas, apprenticeships are enjoying newfound attention here at home. The Urban Institute is playing an integral role, helping employers and policymakers strengthen apprenticeship programs across the country and bring this proven strategy to new industry sectors.

Why apprenticeships? A stand-alone college experience isn’t for everyone. And far too many who start college do not finish and do not end up with a credential of economic value.

Institute fellow Bob Lerman, long an apprenticeship champion, has taught me about the key ingredients of apprenticeships and why they are a skill-building option that allows people to earn credentials and a pathway to that good job.

  • First, apprenticeships offer experiential learning—a key to keeping many students motivated. Apprentices learn while earning, with some classroom-based instruction.
  • Second, there is a skilled adult acting as a role model, providing guidance and encouragement.
  • Third, there is a specific career on the horizon, and most apprentices have a concrete job after completing their program.
  • Finally, apprenticeships are good investments for employers who gain from apprentices’ work efforts while building a highly skilled and committed workforce.

So at a time when there appear to be fewer and fewer routes to the middle class, apprenticeships are enjoying bipartisan support. The Obama and Trump administrations both made significant investments in this pathway to opportunity.

Urban is leading three major new programs for the US Department of Labor to help spread the model.

  • Expanding youth apprenticeships. Urban was just awarded up to $10.5 million over five years to work in partnership with schools and employers to create youth apprenticeship programs for high-growth industries in at least 10 sites across the country.
  • Creating new apprenticeships in technology occupations. Urban was also awarded $12.4 million over three years to help make apprenticeship a standard workforce development practice across the tech industry by creating 1,800 new apprenticeships. Nearly 75 percent of the funds will go to offset employer costs. Expanding tech apprenticeships can help tech employers get comfortable with the power of apprenticeships to help them fill unmet demand while increasing wages for new workers. Urban’s project team, led by Lerman and senior research associate Diana Elliott , will help facilitate innovations designed to appeal to the tech sector, including digital platforms for skills assessment and standards development using a “pay-for-performance” model that encourages employers to create and sustain apprenticeships.
  • Developing competency-based frameworks for apprenticeships. Urban is creating frameworks for a range of occupations, such as transmission line workers, medical assistants, cybersecurity support technicians, and almost two dozen other occupations. They include many fields that US apprenticeships have rarely penetrated. Well-defined occupational frameworks encourage employers to initiate or increase their apprenticeship offers and to improve program quality. The frameworks can show employers how apprenticeships help workers gain relevant, high-level skills; help intermediaries sell employers on apprenticeship; and assist in the process of gaining official recognition as registered or industry-recognized apprenticeships. Urban has created 22 frameworks so far, including for a wind turbine technician and a UX designer. Employers tell us they cannot find enough skilled people to work in avionics or 3D printing—frameworks we’ll possibly work on in the future. Though common globally, these national standards did not exist in the US until Urban designed them.
  • Research and evaluation to advance apprenticeships. Urban continues to lead decades of work that evaluates various apprenticeship opportunities and that builds evidence on apprenticeship models, practices, partnership strategies, and more in high-growth occupations and industries.

As the nature of work changes and technological advancements transform the skills people need to succeed, there’s a greater need for more high-quality learning options that a diversity of people can integrate into their lives. Meeting the demands of our shifting labor market will, in part, require advancing promising solutions, such as apprenticeships.

I’d be interested in hearing whether your industry is considering apprenticeships to meet your needs and/or as an alternative pathway for workers to achieve mobility.

In case you missed it…

Solutions to homelessness. In an episode of The Weeds podcast earlier this month, Mary Cunningham, Urban’s vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy, unpacks the causes of and potential solutions to homelessness, shares data on the issue, and addresses claims that homelessness is a bigger problem now than in the past. I encourage you to give it a listen.

Research Areas Workforce
Tags Apprenticeships