Confirmation hearings this week for a new US secretary of labor are an opportunity for nominee Andrew Puzder to lay out his plans for creating jobs and helping workers prepare for careers. Puzder should consider vastly expanding the country’s apprenticeship system—a move that can make great American jobs and careers and help American companies be more competitive globally, all while saving taxpayer dollars.
Apprenticeship should come naturally to President-elect Trump, the executive producer of NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” and an entrepreneur in the commercial construction industry, where apprenticeships are widespread, high quality, and highly rewarding to workers.
Apprenticeships are paid jobs that combine learning by doing, contributions to production, academic learning in a job context, and a valued job credential. Besides salaries, apprenticeships can give workers a sense of pride and dignity, mastery of a profession, and an identity as part of a “community of practice.”
In recent years, researchers have documented the benefits of apprenticeship to workers, the government, and firms. With an expanded apprenticeship system, a Trump administration, collaborating with Congress, can improve the earnings and status of workers, especially those without a bachelor’s degree.
President Obama largely focused on a “college-for-all” approach to career education that was centered on community colleges. This costly approach has yielded weak outcomes, with low graduation rates and a mixed reputation among employers.
In the past two years, the Obama administration and a bipartisan group in Congress have sponsored modest but worthwhile efforts to expand registered apprenticeships. Republican and Democratic governors are developing apprenticeship initiatives as well. Still, the modest funding, lack of effective marketing, and bureaucratic delays have limited progress and have left the United States far behind Australia, Canada, and England in supporting and expanding apprenticeships.
A Trump administration apprenticeship initiative should spur actions not only by the incoming labor secretary. Other incoming cabinet members can encourage apprenticeships within their agencies and the organizations they fund. For example, the Department of Education can promote apprenticeships in career and technical education programs and career academies. The Commerce Department can diffuse knowledge of apprenticeships among small business and in manufacturing centers.
There is plenty of room to grow. About 400,000 apprentices can be found in the civilian sector and 100,000 in the military sector. If apprenticeships as a share of the US workforce reached the rates in Australia, Canada, and England, the total number of apprentices would jump to four million. We’d be adding high-quality job credentials for about one-third of workers in such fields as advanced manufacturing, health care, information technology, and retail management. These workers would be earning salaries during their training periods and would not have to take on any student debt.
Learning from the United Kingdom and using Trump’s marketing magic
England offers an interesting example as another market economy with a modest share of union members in the private-sector workforce. With support from all political parties, funding to encourage marketing and off-job training for apprenticeships, and a prime minister and other top officials using the bully pulpit to promote apprenticeships, England is making apprenticeship a high-quality, mainstream approach to rewarding careers.
Apprenticeships in England have jumped from 150,000 to over 800,000 in less than eight years. National standards for apprenticeship, developed with industry help, now cover hundreds of occupations. Companies fund apprentice salaries and on-site training, while government generally pays for the off-job courses. In addition to significant government funding, a conservative government is implementing a payroll tax that employers can retrieve for apprenticeship programs. The increased emphasis on learning by doing and improved worker-employer matches that come with apprenticeship are upgrading job quality.
President-elect Trump’s marketing expertise can contribute greatly to a US expansion. So can providing tax credits for employers, allowing government funds for occupational preparation be available for apprenticeship, offering incentives to intermediaries to help employers develop quality apprenticeships in the private and public sectors, streamlining the registration process, building a system for matching applicants and quality apprenticeships, and creating an effective accreditation body.
Expanding apprenticeships can mean that far more workers are well prepared for rewarding careers while avoiding the escalating burdens of postsecondary education. Together with their positive impacts on living standards, apprenticeships will bring status and pride to a large segment of American workers.