The blog of the Urban Institute
January 8, 2021

Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs Deserve a Chance to Thrive

Apprenticeship is the most cost-effective approach to building skills, combining paid, structured learning on the job with relevant coursework that leads to occupational expertise. Until 2015, federal and state funding for apprenticeship was minimal. But with bipartisan support, the Obama administration allocated new apprenticeship grant funding in 2015. The Trump administration and Congress then tripled spending to expand apprenticeship. In 2017, President Trump also created a Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion, partly in response to limitations in the existing registered apprenticeship system. It recommended new Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs).

IRAPs are not directly reviewed and approved by federal or state apprenticeship offices. Instead, the US Department of Labor has empowered Standards Recognition Entities (SREs) to approve skill frameworks and recognize IRAPs, similar to the delegation of accreditation in higher education. The Department of Labor announced the first IRAP in October 2020.

Unlike previous bipartisan agreement on apprenticeship, IRAPs have proved controversial. On the campaign trail, president-elect Biden said that IRAPs risk “watering down the quality of the apprenticeship system” because SREs could recognize apprenticeship programs that are not fully aligned with all federal registration requirements. The House of Representatives’ November 2020 reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Act excluded any funding for IRAPs.

Although the Biden administration looks inclined to weaken or eliminate IRAPs, a better strategy would be to learn from how they operate while undertaking a broader review of how an American apprenticeship system should be structured.

IRAPs and registered apprenticeships follow the same principles

Despite concerns about the quality of IRAPs, the programs adhere to the same evidence-based pedagogical principles as registered apprenticeship programs, including paid, structured, on-the-job training “wherein an individual obtains workplace-relevant knowledge and progressively advancing skills.” IRAPs also allow more flexibility than registered apprenticeships in the duration of training, in the ratio of experienced workers to apprentices, and in the approval process, though all IRAPs must provide at least one industry-recognized credential. 

Research shows that applying these principles improves the skills, earnings, and employment outcomes of apprentices in registered and unregistered apprenticeships. One study found that registered apprenticeship training in 10 states raised participants’ annual earnings by $5,839 in the ninth year after enrolling and lifetime earnings by $98,718. Another study found even larger lifetime benefits for registered apprentices in Washington State, with earnings exceeding $235,000. Although there are no specific studies of IRAPs, recent research shows the unregistered Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education apprenticeship in Kentucky generated earnings gains at least as large as research has found for registered programs.

All IRAPs should be assessed and the programs should be studied rigorously for impacts on apprentices and employer participation. Apprenticeship training’s strength is its combination of paid work-based learning and related educational instruction, not the particulars of program registration or recognition.

Approved SREs have a record of supporting high-quality training

In 2017, when the Trump administration’s task force recommended industry-recognized apprenticeships, some wondered whether selected SREs would commit to high-quality training. Now we know that the initial 27 approved SREs have a strong record of commitment to occupational skills training and advocating for apprenticeship.

Among the approved SREs is the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, a leader in training and certifying skills in the metalworking trades and the first SRE to recognize an IRAP. The institute has been a committed partner in the registered apprenticeship system and has even worked with the Urban Institute to develop high-quality competency-based frameworks for registered apprenticeship programs.

Eight of the new SREs are government agencies or workforce boards, such as the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship (which the US Department of Labor also approved to oversee the state’s registered apprenticeship programs) and the Iowa Department of Education (which has expanded registered youth apprenticeship in the state).

The record of these and other SREs in promoting high-quality training and even registered apprenticeship is reassuring, yet neither registered apprenticeship programs nor IRAPs have an external system for assessing apprentices to guarantee quality. Independent endpoint assessments of apprentices, like those used in the United Kingdom, could enhance the quality and reputation of both IRAPs and registered apprenticeship programs.

Give IRAPs a chance to prove their worth

IRAPs are untested but only because they are so new. They do, however, draw on more evidence than most new initiatives because they build on what we already know works. Stronger data systems on individual IRAPs and apprentices should be required to allow for rigorous research and quality assurance.

Some employers who are interested in providing structured, on-the-job training are discouraged by the red tape and the registration process for apprenticeship programs. IRAPs could be a step toward registration for these employers, as SREs that have been active in registered apprenticeship could help their employers register. About half of all US apprenticeship programs are already unregistered, and IRAPs would provide an opportunity to bring more structure and oversight to these programs, not less.

And given their flexibility, IRAPs may also offer an opportunity to expand youth apprenticeship. Currently, youth apprenticeship is limited in the United States partly because state requirements for high school graduation make it difficult to integrate meaningful work-based learning. IRAPs tailored to the circumstances of high schools could contribute to a flourishing youth apprenticeship system.

Before we have solid evidence on IRAPs, maintaining separate funding for registered apprenticeships is reasonable. But like other training programs, IRAPs could still access federal and state workforce and technical education funding if they meet other eligibility criteria. From our research, we believe encouraging experimentation with new forms of work-based learning, including industry-recognized apprenticeships, will lead to a more robust apprenticeship system. But ultimately, incoming labor secretary Marty Walsh and policymakers focused on apprenticeship should build an architecture that includes ongoing funding, sales and technical support to employers, occupational skill standards, enhanced mentoring, and assessment systems.


This blog post has been revised to more precisely characterize why youth apprenticeship is limited in the United States (updated 1/8/2021).

Klaus Vedfelt/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.