The blog of the Urban Institute
April 22, 2019

Five Common Misconceptions about Apprenticeships

April 22, 2019

Apprenticeship programs are gaining popularity in the US, as evidence shows they have the potential to expand access to skills training for high-demand occupations, raise wages, and reduce student debt. Despite the existence of a formal, nationally registered apprenticeship system since 1937 and state registered programs that date back even further, the training model is not widely understood by American workers or businesses.

Here we clear up five misconceptions surrounding apprenticeships:

Misconception: Apprenticeships and internships are the same thing.

Reality: Internships and apprenticeships are both ways to build a pipeline of ready-to-work talent. The two are often conflated because they both offer hands-on training, but each serves a different purpose and has different outcomes.

Interns gain work experience, often while enrolled in a separate education program, but they are not permanent employees. Apprentices are paid employees who are formally trained on the job and certified for a particular industry.

Apprenticeships are long term, ranging from one to six years, while internships are short-term opportunities, typically lasting a few months. Internships are often unpaid, but apprenticeships are paid and often lead to a job. In 2016, 91 percent of apprentices retained employment upon completion.

Misconception: Apprenticeships are only for the building and construction trades.

Reality: Long used as an effective recruitment practice in the building and construction trades, the apprenticeship model has recently been embraced by industries such as advanced manufacturing, accounting, healthcare, IT, and hospitality. Kentucky, for example, launched a program for social care apprenticeships last year. Apprenticeships are also increasingly considered an alternative for training the science and engineering workforce.

The Urban Institute’s national competency-based frameworks for registered apprenticeships highlight the range of new frontiers for apprenticeships.

Misconception: Apprenticeships are a way for companies to get low-cost labor.

Reality: Apprenticeships have come under fire because apprentices often start at lower wages. But research finds that employers are more interested in investing in apprentices’ skills than in using apprenticeships to hire cheaper workers.

Employers pay for expensive training on top of apprentice wages, and as apprentices become more productive, their wages increase in steps that are laid out in an apprenticeship contract. Apprenticeships often lead to high-paying positions, with average earnings of more than $50,000 and an 87 percent employment rate after completion without the burden of student loan debt.

Apprenticeships can and should be a broadly accessible path to good jobs that pay livable wages and provide supportive services, such as child care, transportation, and legal assistance.

But progress for women and people of color in apprenticeships has been uneven and varies by group. Wage and participation gaps do exist, with persistent economic disparities among women and people of color, who may face low enrollment rates, discriminatory recruitment and selection procedures, and concentration in lower-paying occupations. Apprenticeship expansion efforts should focus on racial and gender equity to best serve all Americans.

Misconception: Apprenticeships cost too much for employers.

Reality: Amid an expected shortage of 5 million workers by 2020, US employers can use apprenticeships to gain a pipeline of site-specific, skilled, and productive workers. In fact, employers see a return on investment for registered apprenticeship programs of about $1.50 for every $1 invested in an apprenticeship by the second year of employment.

Misconception: Stigma around enrolling in apprenticeships limits apprenticeship growth.

Reality: Apprenticeships are sometimes viewed as viable for a small slice of students who aren’t “college-ready.” But there is strong interest in apprenticeship among a range of applicants, and employers have not been able to keep up with the demand.

There are more than 500,000 apprentices in the United States across hundreds of occupations. Apprenticeships are offered by a range of employers and other sponsors, including state governments and even state and federal prisons.

Most programs are oversubscribed. For example, the Norfolk Department of Utilities received 150 applicants for 15 slots in their apprenticeship program. In a global context, the US would need more than six times as many new apprentices (PDF) to be on the same per capita level as England and Australia.

The energy around these programs is encouraging. In 2015, the Obama administration funded 46 public-private partnerships with $175 million over five years to expand apprenticeships. And the Trump administration is building off this increased expansion with a commitment to create 5 million new apprenticeships by 2022.

But along with this growing enthusiasm, it is critical that state, local, and federal administrators grow these programs thoughtfully and include safeguards to ensure the programs consider high-quality, competency-based standards and meet the needs of workers and employers alike.

Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.