The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 24, 2018

How new competency frameworks can help US policymakers and employers boost apprenticeships

Attention around apprenticeships continues to gain momentum. President Trump signed an executive order last week that aims to improve the government’s involvement in workforce training and to encourage companies to increase their training efforts, largely through apprenticeships. At the White House signing ceremony, several employers (such as Home Depot, Walmart, and Microsoft), employer associations, and unions pledged to offer new training opportunities to nearly 4 million workers over the next five years.

Employers are struggling to find workers with the necessary skills. And apprenticeships are the most cost-effective strategy for upgrading workers’ skills, especially relevant occupational and employability skills. Emphasizing “learning by doing” along with classroom instruction, apprenticeship programs raise the productivity and wages of workers while contributing to the employer’s productive output.

This week, the Urban Institute announced the first set of competency-based occupational frameworks for apprenticeship that we developed under a contract with the US Department of Labor (DOL). This first set covers transmission line workers, medical assistants, cybersecurity support technicians, and seven other occupations. In the coming months, we will release additional frameworks for other occupations.

Well-defined occupational frameworks can simplify the development and approval processes, encouraging 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.

Why the US needs occupational frameworks for apprenticeship

The US lags behind many countries in the scale of its apprenticeship system. The apprenticeship share of the US civilian workforce is less than 0.3 percent. Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom train apprentices at nearly 10 times the US rate. These and other nations have built apprenticeship systems covering many occupations and have established recognized skill frameworks for apprenticeable occupations.  

Recent efforts by US political leaders to expand apprenticeships have been hampered by the absence of broad-based, widely recognized frameworks. The final report of the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion argues that many employers avoid the nation’s Registered Apprenticeship program because of excessive paperwork and insufficient flexibility in meeting program requirements at the state and federal levels.

In the US system, each employer or small group of employers must identify what skills are broad enough for an occupational credential that meets the requirements of the Office of Apprenticeship while being specific enough to meet the employer’s current and future needs.

The task force’s report call for “standards-based, nationally portable, industry-recognized” credentials for apprenticeship, pointing out that most industry credentialing programs are competency based. These Urban Institute–DOL frameworks begin to fulfill the task force’s objectives by providing employers competency-based, nationally portable frameworks that have been vetted with industry groups and individual employers.

A forward-looking approach to developing the frameworks

The Urban Institute’s strategy involves developing a template that can be used across occupations. It identifies and describes the specific occupations and draws on industry consultations to establish appropriate job functions, occupational and cross-cutting competencies, and related instructional plans. This template includes the following steps:

  • First, we capture what job functions the employer wants the apprentice to be able to perform well by the end of the apprenticeship. For example, a skilled transmission line worker must be able to install electrical systems; operate, maintain, and repair distribution and transmission systems; and abide by workplace safety rules and regulations.
  • Drawing upon resources from employers, industry associations, and the DOL, we draft competencies that an apprentice would be required to demonstrate for those job functions at a high level. Such resources include standards developed in industry-oriented groups, such as the Transportation Learning Center and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, which are translated into the Urban-DOL occupational framework.
  • We then distribute drafts to employers, who make suggestions for improving the competency specifications. We incorporate those revisions into the competency frameworks.
  • Finally, the Office of Apprenticeship reviews the revised frameworks and approves the frameworks for posting on the Office of Apprenticeship and Urban Institute websites. The office sends a bulletin to apprenticeship training representatives to help employers and other sponsors establish registered apprenticeships.

The frameworks’ short forms highlight job functions and competencies and recommended technical instruction. The long forms provide extensive information about the occupation, including occupational pathways, certifications and licensure, and options and specializations.

As US policymakers expand apprenticeship, they should recognize the importance of transparent, high-quality, and employer-recognized skill frameworks. Though voluntary, employers can use the frameworks to design and obtain approval for their apprenticeships in a timely fashion. 

This first set of 10 frameworks is just the start of an effort to broaden the occupational scope of apprenticeship training. But it shows how the US can encourage apprenticeships that yield high-quality, well-structured training for employees and that lead to a well-recognized credential based on competencies.

Photo illustration by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.

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