The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 20, 2018

Apprenticeships can help a divided Congress find common ground on economic mobility

November 20, 2018

Following the midterm elections, the United States will have a divided government come January. Some have called attention to potential cooperation between President Trump and the Democrat-controlled House on infrastructure and health care. Apprenticeships could contribute to progress in these two sectors while also providing millions of Americans with rewarding job and training opportunities—a shared goal of nearly every policymaker.

Apprenticeships offer on-the-job training with classroom learning to help people earn credentials and certifications that may lead to a fruitful career. They come without the enormous costs of a four-year college and are often a solid path to a high-paying job in fields like engineering or health care. 

Analyses have found that 87 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs, with an average starting wage above $50,000. For every dollar spent on apprenticeships, employers may get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity, reduced waste, and greater frontline innovation.

The US Department of Labor is working with the Urban Institute to create industry-recognized, competency-based, occupational frameworks that companies can use to design and develop apprenticeship programs. These frameworks will offer a standardized way for employers, unions, and schools to train apprentices in various industries. 

These frameworks could help boost the number of apprentices in the US. There are only 440,000 registered apprentices in the US as of September 30, 2017, 10 percent of what our international competitors in Europe have.

Previous efforts on apprenticeships have built today’s foundation

Calls to increase the number and quality of apprenticeship across the United States has been prevalent since the early 1990s, with presidents Bush and Clinton focusing on the topic, albeit with few results.

The apprenticeship movement seemed dormant in the 2000s and early 2010s, until President Obama called for increased apprenticeship in his 2014 State of the Union address. His efforts led to $90 million in new investments through ApprenticeshipUSA to expand apprenticeship in the United States and more than 75,000 new apprentices.

Building on the Obama administration’s initial efforts, President Trump signed an executive order last year that would streamline federal efforts to increase the number of apprenticeships to 5 million over the next five years. The executive order also called for doubling (to $200 million) the funding for learn-to-earn programs. 

In their platform for the midterms, Democrats proposed “doubling federal investments in work-based learning programs, such as registered apprenticeships, and paid on-the-job training by launching a national network of partnerships among businesses, career technical programs, public schools, and community college.”

Democrats in both houses of Congress have also sponsored several pieces of legislation that seek to increase the number of apprenticeships, often focusing on linking community colleges, high schools, and employers.

Some issues remain to be worked out. President Trump has signaled support for allowing trade associations and other nongovernmental entities to bypass the more traditional registered apprenticeship system in establishing their own apprenticeships. Democrats have expressed reservations about this proposal.

As those details of the debate continue, the evidence is clear that increasing apprentices in the United States can provide a path to a high-paying career for millions, close the skills gap that leaves many jobs unfilled, and make America more competitive on the world stage.

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