Urban Wire In Kentucky, apprenticeships in the public sector open new opportunities
John Marotta
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In January 2019, the government sector employed nearly 23 million workers, or about 15 percent of all US nonfarm workers, and local governments account for about two-thirds of this total. Governments also employ workers through outside service contracts and influence job markets through their purchases of goods and services.

Facing an aging workforce and persistent fiscal challenges, state and local governments are struggling to attract and retain the next generation of public servants. State and local governments are trying new strategies (PDF) to address these talent pipeline challenges.

In a 2018 survey of state and local human resources professionals (PDF), 20 percent of respondents reported that internships and apprenticeships are successful recruitment practices for reaching qualified candidates. Although public employers have long used apprenticeships, and although public administration currently provides over 23,000 apprenticeships in 31 states that report individual industries, recent initiatives to expand apprenticeship programs have generally not addressed the possibility of expanding apprenticeships into the public sector. As a result, some have called on governments to lead by example (PDF).

Kentucky as a case study in public sector apprenticeships

In 2018, Kentucky launched several pilot civil service apprenticeship programs as part of a broader talent development strategy for filling critical gaps in the Commonwealth’s talent pipeline. Researchers from the Urban Institute sought to understand these new and innovative civil service apprenticeship programs through interviews and reviewing press and collateral materials about the programs.

Urban staff recently conducted interviews with 22 individuals, including 5 apprentices, and public officials representing the Kentucky Department of Human Resources Administration, the Division of Apprenticeship, the Commonwealth Office of Technology, the Department of Community Based Services, the Transportation Cabinet, and the Barren County Government.

The Kentucky programs have operated for less than a year, but each of the four civil service apprenticeships examined by Urban’s researchers demonstrate tangible, practical benefits. For example, working apprentices gain experience while allowing skilled workers to focus on more advanced tasks.

Apprentices are cultivating professional networks, obtaining necessary experience for industry-recognized credentials, learning vital technical and interpersonal skills, and taking pride in serving their communities.

Apprentices and their managers are generally pleased with the apprentices’ work, as well as the mentoring of the apprentices, the skills they attain, and the positive effect they have on the departments. These promising developments bode well for expansion to other public sector entities. Indeed, Kentucky’s Departments of Corrections and Veterans Affairs are already exploring apprenticeship opportunities for various positions.

Other states and localities are following suit

The City of Philadelphia is piloting career pathways work-based learning opportunities with its Office of Fleet Management, Parks and Recreation Department, Streets Department, and Water Department. These apprenticeship programs hire and train young people to work in the city’s automotive garages, maintain trees and roads, and improve the city’s communications and outreach efforts.

In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development collaborated with Boston Emergency Medical Services to develop an emergency medical technician apprenticeship program (PDF). The city hopes this apprenticeship program will boost their recruitment abilities, along with the opportunity for good wages, benefits, and academic and career growth.

To continue building momentum for public sector apprenticeships, leaders should encourage state officials to develop apprenticeships in a range of occupations, many of which have counterparts in the private sector. As department managers learn more about building and managing apprenticeships, they should document the benefits and costs of the apprenticeships to the operations of departments and to the apprentices.

Public officials can increase their credibility when promoting apprenticeships in the private sector by pointing to the largely positive results in the public sector. Based on Kentucky’s experience, public sector apprenticeships seem like a viable way to expand economic opportunity and address the talent needs of state and local governments.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Workforce
Tags Workforce development Job training Beyond high school: education and training Apprenticeships
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population