The blog of the Urban Institute
March 17, 2020

A Good Start for Scaling American Apprenticeships: Five Potential Improvements

Apprenticeship is moving ahead in America. As a cost-effective approach to learning high-level skills, apprenticeship prepares workers for rewarding careers. Apprentices earn wages and contribute to production while employers gain a return on their investments in human capital.

A key reflection of broadening support for apprenticeships is the House Education and Labor Committee’s draft bill (PDF) published last week. The bill proposes to replace the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937 and subsequent regulations by codifying many existing practices, creating new administrative components, and increasing funding for expanding apprenticeships while assuring their quality.

Presidents, governors, members of Congress, and industry leaders have increasingly recognized the potential of scaling apprenticeship across private industry, the public sector, higher education, prisons, and communities.

These efforts draw on US-based research and developments in such countries as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Switzerland. The rationale for scaling quality apprenticeships attracts a broad consensus, but determining how best to do so is difficult.

How would the new legislation make a difference? What elements might strengthen the proposal?

Codifying existing practices

The proposed bill maintains the leading role of the US Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship (OA) in overseeing the Registered Apprenticeship system. It continues the concept of registering apprenticeship programs under a sponsor, such as a single employer, an employer association, a community college, or a labor-management arrangement.

Existing state apprenticeship agencies would continue to have authority to register sponsors with respect to their occupational programs. The criteria for registering programs in apprenticeable occupations would continue to include the following:

  • well-defined skill frameworks (or work process schedules)
  • required related technical instruction (with either a time, competency, or hybrid program approach)
  • signed agreements between apprentices and sponsors
  • a progressive wage schedule.

Existing Registered Apprenticeship programs could continue, although they would have to comply with new features of the system within three years.

Introducing new structure

The proposed bill envisions widening the role of state governments partly by creating new state apprenticeship agencies (SAAs) beyond the 28 already authorized to register apprenticeship programs. The OA administrator would assist the development of these state agencies and oversee the operations of new and existing agencies.

The bill proposes annual funding for state agencies and increased funding for OA’s technical assistance and regulatory functions. Also new are clear definitions of preapprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs, but less clear is how they will interact within the registered system.

The bill would reinstate the National Advisory Committee and required quarterly consultations with representatives from business, labor, and government. It proposes major increases in funding for apprenticeship, including grants to industry groups and other intermediaries to expand the number of quality apprentices.

Other initiatives aim to increase accountability and performance:

  • expanding data collection from sponsors and state agencies
  • extensive evaluations of apprenticeship programs
  • the diffusion of best practices
  • a more robust evaluation structure to examine how effective programs improve apprentices’ skills compared with nonparticipants and whether the programs achieve a high rate of return for apprentices and employers

Evidence-based Strategies Addressing Challenges with the Registered Apprenticeship System

If the goal of the proposal is to support a robust national implementation of these changes to the Registered Apprenticeship system, evidence suggests the committee could consider these five policy areas: 

1. Simplify the registration process

To simplify registration and the development and maintenance of high skill standards, the proposal bill could ensure full reciprocity across state borders so employers and other program sponsors operating in more than one state do not have obstacles to expansion.

Some state apprenticeship councils have infrequent meetings and make ill-advised decisions on programs. The bill could address the recurrent barriers raised by these problems, and it could mandate that decisions on registration be left to the state agencies, with councils playing only an advisory role.

2. Maintain national program registrations

The proposal could continue and improve upon OA’s ability to register national programs (apprenticeships taking place in several states at a significant scale) by ensuring ease of access and taking up appeals from sponsors that were unfairly rejected at the state level.

In doing so, the proposal could clarify the recognition of national program standards that can scale apprenticeships through major industry organizations, intermediaries, and national employers, providing one standard for many employers to implement through widely used employer acceptance agreements.

3. Build and recognize occupational frameworks

The bill could include state pilots or demonstrations to implement such assessments and determine if they improve outcomes. More broadly, the bill could begin a process to establish national occupational frameworks or occupational skills for registered apprenticeships and allow them to serve as preapproved criteria for registration.

Nearly all countries with robust, quality apprenticeship systems rely on such frameworks. Such an approach could simplify and increase transparency in the registration process and provide apprentices with a more highly valued and transferable credential.

The bill could enhance quality by doing more to ensure that apprentices prove their competence. Robust apprenticeship systems generally utilize third-party assessments of apprentices.

4. Help employers offer apprenticeships

The proposal could create a National Technical Assistance Center to provide immediate technical support for starting an apprenticeship program and which would work directly with a state agency for approval.

With so many companies now looking to start apprenticeships, this center could be the authoritative organization for the rules of apprenticeships nationwide.

5. Promote expansion across occupations

We could avoid restricting apprenticeship to occupations learned mostly through on-the-job training. Central to expanding apprenticeships is encouraging more career preparation with some academic components but primarily through a learning-by-doing process in which learners gain skills while contributing to production and earning income.

A broad expansion of apprenticeship could also be promoted by recognizing people who complete youth apprenticeships as fully qualified journeyworkers and reforming the way new occupations are recognized through industry and employer bodies.

The draft proposal is a good starting point to clarify and build on existing practices, promote structural improvements, increase and disseminate knowledge about apprenticeship, and provide the necessary funding to expand apprenticeship opportunities while sustaining quality.

SHARE THIS PAGE

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.