Urban Wire Learning from the United Kingdom’s success in generating 2 million apprenticeships
Andrew Karas
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At a recent ceremony honoring skillful and diligent apprentices trained through the UK’s Highbury College, one of the year’s top graduates  let the audience in on an uncomfortable secret: her parents hadn’t wanted her to pursue an apprenticeship. They had cried when she’d announced her intention to enter the program.

Their reactions are common, Jacqueline Page, the regional director of business development at Highbury, told an audience at Urban last week. Apprenticeships are booming in the UK, but for many, the word connotes low-wage, manual labor, or something out of the eighteenth century.

In reality, apprenticeships are an increasingly popular way to build advanced skills in fields ranging from cyber security and advanced manufacturing to logistics and healthcare. In an apprenticeship, most learning takes place on the job, but there is also a classroom-based component, so apprentices master the capabilities required in their occupation while experiencing the workplace as a productive employee and earning a wage. Those who successfully complete an apprenticeship are awarded a certificate documenting their skills, but without having to pay tuition.

Urban Institute Fellow Robert Lerman has written that apprenticeship is among the most cost-effective ways to train workers while narrowing gender and race achievement gaps and increasing the productivity of firms.

According to a study by the Skills Funding Agency, in 2012-2013, more than twice as many young people in the UK entered an apprenticeship in engineering and manufacturing technology as entered a post-secondary program in engineering. In the past decade, the U.K. has generated nearly two million apprenticeships. The question now is how to replicate that success in the United States.

An untapped tool for human capital creation

For the nearly two dozen speakers at last Monday’s Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum at Urban, apprenticeship represents nothing less than the single most promising untapped tool for human capital creation and an area of enormous potential growth in the United States.

The executives and training providers who spoke at the forum have helped train apprentices who have become six-figure computer technicians, highly skilled shipbuilders, fitness trainers, and even a young, newly minted CEO. The speakers believe these types of jobs are within reach of many who would otherwise struggle to find a path through a traditional college degree.

The pitch to firms is that, with a significant investment, they can train a productive worker in the short term, reduce skills shortages in the medium term, and eventually make their industry more competitive. When apprenticeship advocate and Maryland State Senator James Rosapepe makes this pitch to firms or high schools, he said he often hears an immediate response: “When can we sign up?”

Labor market inefficiencies

Lerman has heard this response, too. Lerman has been trying to build apprenticeship offerings in the United States for decades, and he’s convinced, based on the data, that apprenticeship has a bright future here despite its failure to catch on yet. Apprentices currently account for just 0.2 percent of the US labor force. Meanwhile, apprentices now account for 2.7 percent of the labor force in Britain.

At a roundtable after the forum, Lerman led a discussion exploring the idea that labor market inefficiencies prevent apprenticeship from catching on. Job training suffers from a coordination problem of matching the right students with the right jobs, the attendees reasoned. Furthermore, firms aren’t willing to put in the investment apprenticeships require without proof positive that it’ll work.

Building a training ecosystem with bipartisan support

So how did the UK generate two million apprenticeships? The key is a robust network of training organizations, from community colleges to specialized private-sector training providers, that act both as advocates for apprenticeship and matchmakers between firms and students. These organizations market, organize, oversee, and supply theoretical training for apprenticeships, keeping it simple for employers to hire and train. By funding much of the training outside the workplace, the government provides the training organizations with the financial incentive to make apprenticeships happen.

To match other countries on apprenticeship, the United States will need to somehow grow its own training ecosystem. Some domestic training providers like Udacity have made a splash lately, but perhaps the best example of a strong ecosystem is in South Carolina, where a public investment helped spur a dramatic increase in apprenticeships.

Fortunately for advocates, apprenticeship has attracted a glimmer of bipartisan support on both sides of the Atlantic. At the forum, Tom Bewick told the audience that Britain’s Conservative and Labor parties have been falling over each other to fund the best apprenticeship system .

In Washington, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have introduced one bill to provide tax credits to employers who support apprenticeship, and Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have proposed another. The Obama administration recently used $175 million to fund 46 projects to create new apprenticeships. To publicize the importance of apprenticeship, the administration has designated this week as Apprenticeship Week.

If a standing-room-only crowd at the Urban Institute is any indication, growing bipartisan support for apprenticeship on this side of the pond is only a matter of time, and of spreading the word.


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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 Education
Tags Apprenticeships
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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