Can Apprenticeship Become More Than A Niche Model In The U.S.? by [email protected]

At a time when many U.S.-based industrial companies are struggling to create the workforces they need in order to compete in global markets, can apprenticeship programs play a more significant role in meeting their needs? All apprenticeship programs, whether online or classroom-based, will include similar elements: workplace learning; production in the workplace; and theoretical learning, all leading to an occupational certification that the individual is competent in their new field.

Explains John Colborn, director of the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future program, “The apprenticeship model is really a way for employers to have a very structured program that prepares the talent they need in order to be successful.” The goal of the program is to strengthen and increase partnerships between employers and community colleges to provide workers with the training they need for today’s labor market.

In an encouraging trend, there has recently been “a wider effort to broaden the role of apprenticeship into occupations beyond construction and, to some extent, manufacturing — and to increase the penetration of apprenticeship in employers, more broadly, in other areas, including in manufacturing,” notes Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the nonprofit Urban Institute. On the federal level, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have co-sponsored a tax credit bill for apprenticeships somewhat on the lines of South Carolina’s apprenticeship tax credit. And some states are creating small tax credits for apprenticeships.

Yet Canada, which has about one-tenth the population of the United States, still has a higher absolute number of people who undergo apprenticeships than the U.S., notes Lerman. In the U.S., there are barely more than 300,000 people in apprenticeships. “That is really a drop in the bucket compared to the U.K. or some of the E.U. countries,” says Colborn. “That is a function of our secondary-school system, which for the last 30 years has been almost entirely focused on putting people on a college trajectory.”

“Our apprentices start at a much later age” than those in other leading industrial countries, Lerman says. “The government provides virtually no support for the offsite learning and not much in even sales, marketing, oversight and assessment. In some states, there might be [only] one rep of the office of apprenticeship that is supposed to do all that.”

The concept of apprenticeship has languished in the United States in recent decades for a number of reasons. But observers suggest several moves and initiatives that could transform apprenticeship from a niche practice common only among a few employers and occupations into something more widespread.

Why Invest in Training?

Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli notes that despite a groundswell of new efforts to boost the popularity of apprenticeships, many employers don’t find them appealing because they want to hire “people who are already trained and skilled.” Unfortunately, Cappelli says, “Employers [in the U.S.] gave up on training. They thought they didn’t have to, and for a while it looked like they didn’t have to — because you could hire the people you wanted who already had experience someplace else. That works OK until everybody has that. And then it stops working.”

“Employers gave up on training. They thought they didn’t have to, and for a while it looked like they didn’t have to – because you could hire the people you wanted who already had experience someplace else”–Peter Cappelli

The most recent global recession, and the slow pace of the subsequent recovery, have buttressed the notion that training is not necessary, adds Cappelli, who is also director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. “That makes it easier, because you are not hiring so much [nowadays], if you are hiring at all. In the last seven years, it has been pretty much of a buyers’ market for labor; you could pretty much hire anybody you want,” he notes. “You don’t have to pay much; you don’t have to train. A lot of companies got rid of training programs if they had them. They probably got rid of recruiters, if they had them.”

Does Cappelli believe that apprenticeships are about to make a comeback? “If people don’t have to train people,” he asks, “why would we think they would do an apprenticeship program, which is taking unskilled people and training them? This is the question we are struggling to answer.” There hasn’t been much activity or growth in apprenticeships since the late 1990s, Cappelli says, when the economy strong and companies were struggling to hire. “Why would they suddenly change their minds?” he asks. “If the economy does get really hot, the first thing is that we’ll hear a lot of screaming about retention, and then we’ll see companies trying to compete with perks, which don’t really cost so much. Then they’ll try to raise wages, and then we’ll say ‘We have to look at different pools, and start hiring people who are cheaper….’ ”

Roberta Rehner Iversen, professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, agrees that job training is deeply underfunded in the United States. “I don’t see any evidence of corporate demand…. And corporations are probably looking at highly skilled workers, [rather than] looking at recruiting those who require training in order to contribute to the corporate return on investment.”

State-by-state Progress

And yet, some avid proponents of apprenticeships are starting to see signs of progress. “We have seen that in a couple of states, South Carolina most notably, they have adopted different kinds of tax credit regimes to help support employers who are sponsoring apprenticeships,” says Colborn. “There are also some federal legislative proposals intended to advance that idea at the federal level. The Obama Administration has put forward budget proposals that have gone nowhere about dramatically increasing federal support for apprenticeship through the Department of Labor and through the Apprenticeship Training Fund [of the U.S. Commerce Department], which would provide money to the states to increase their participation.

“All of this is emblematic of a renaissance in looking at apprenticeships,” he says. “That follows a sense that our traditional educational system is not doing a very good job of training people for these middle-skills jobs — and we need to have a different way of pedagogy for training people.” The advantage of apprenticeships is two-fold, Colborn notes. First, the training is grounded in an occupation, and it enables the student to earn a paycheck while they are in school. “It addresses the twin problems of the unaffordability of post-secondary education — and the disconnectedness” of students after they have finished their secondary education, he adds. “By and large, employers take on the cost of both training and wages. It’s a good deal for those who couldn’t get such training in other post-high-school programs.

“Our traditional educational system is not doing a very good job of training people for these middle-skills jobs — and we need to have a different way of pedagogy for training people.”–John Colborn

“There is a lot to be said for [college education],” says Colborn. “[But] we have done a disservice for those folks for whom either the academic route is not suited for their aptitude and interests, or it doesn’t fit with their economic or life

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