The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 15, 2017

A strong apprenticeship model can help solve America's workforce challenges

November 15, 2017

The US has a workforce problem. Six million jobs remain unfilled, and around 6.5 million people are unemployed. So why can’t employers fill those positions and increase productivity and worker wages?

The skills gap continues to plague companies in all industries, from health care to construction to information technology. Employers across the US report a lack of workers with the proper skill sets to thrive in their business. That’s where apprenticeships come in. These programs, which combine classroom instruction and hands-on training, are developed with employers to ensure workers learn the skills they need to contribute to employers and build a lucrative career.

Attention around apprenticeships continues to pick up steam. In June, President Trump signed an executive order to expand apprenticeships, and he endorsed Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s goal to create 5 million apprenticeships in the next five years.

This week marks National Apprenticeship Week, which kicked off with the inaugural meeting of the US Department of Labor’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. As part of National Apprenticeship Week, the Urban Institute hosted the third annual Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum. The forum featured experts from the US, the UK, and Australia who shared lessons and perspectives and discussed their relevance to the US effort to expand apprenticeships to solve workforce challenges.

We can learn from other countries’ experiences

The US lags most European nations in the numbers and diversity of apprenticeships. The UK quadrupled its number of apprenticeships between 1997 and 2007 and built a solid governance system for apprenticeships.  

Tom Bewick, president of the Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum, pointed to three factors that helped the UK rapidly expand its apprenticeship model:

  • Developing a national apprenticeship conversation among officials and business leaders
  • Providing public investment in off-the-job training
  • Shifting the controls from the government to the private sector in developing apprenticeship program content

The US is at a similar stage in its apprenticeship journey as the UK was in the early 2000s, and UK representatives are encouraging the US to tap into their expertise and experience. “Please learn from England’s mistakes and successes,” Bewick said. “We didn’t always get it right in the dash for growth.”

To boost apprenticeships, change how they’re perceived

The US must overcome the negative perception of apprenticeships and skilled training programs among students, parents, employers, and society. For years, apprenticeships have been viewed “as a plan B to college,” said Paul Ray, counselor to the secretary of the US Department of Labor. “We want to change that perception. For many people, an apprenticeship is a better path to the middle class.”

Traditional four-year college degrees don’t always provide the skills employers seek, and they can burden students with massive loans. But apprenticeships can better prepare students for industries facing labor shortages and can lead to lucrative salaries. “We don’t want students to feel they have to go to college to have a good career,” Ray said.

A major societal shift won’t happen overnight, but buy-in from parents, schools, and public officials can alter the perception of apprenticeships. Employer buy-in is critical because they need to be convinced they’re getting a high enough return on investment to start programs and hire apprentices.

We need to establish national standards and funding channels

Variations among different states and agencies add another layer of complexity to America’s efforts to expand apprenticeships. Robert Lerman, an Institute fellow at the Urban Institute, has been working with other Urban researchers and Department of Labor officials to develop national competency-based occupational frameworks that would encourage more employers to offer apprenticeships and would help workers earn credentials that are recognized across state lines.

The question of funding looms over this conversation. There are various opinions regarding who should shoulder most of the funding burden. UK representatives encouraged the US to start with a government-centered funding model but to move to a more employer-focused model as its apprenticeship system evolves.

Lerman emphasized that the US has only just begun its apprenticeship efforts and has a long way to go. Research can help drive the conversation and offer evidence to highlight these programs’ benefits.

“We’re going to need all of this effort—funding, frameworks, selling, and organizing—to continue this conversation,” he said. “My vision is that we make apprenticeships a viable and mainstream pathway to rewarding careers.”

Photo by Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images.


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.