Why Aren’t There More Apprentices in America?

Within the fractious realm of higher education policy, one of the few ideas to gain bipartisan support is the expansion of technical training for young workers, largely through apprenticeships. Both the political left and right favor apprenticeships as a way to educate and train America’s youth for future success while also meeting the demands of the economy.

However, despite the many advantages offered by apprenticeships, there has been no great rush by young people into such programs. Instead, for many young people, a college degree remains their primary goal upon graduating from high school, even though it is costly and no longer guarantees a middle-class income. Among the reasons are a lack of awareness and a degree of social stigma sometimes attached to those who don’t pursue an academic degree. College-educated parents are particularly suspicious of the long-term benefits of apprenticeships: though they may support apprenticeships in principle, they tend to like it when other people’s children become apprentices, rather than their own.

Still, for many young people, apprenticeships should be especially attractive because they offer an immediate paycheck for work and also teach skills in both hands-on and classroom settings. The average apprenticeship period tends to be about four years, according to Department of Labor statistics, and workers usually become full employees upon program completion.

In contrast, the traditional college route not only requires considerable payment for tuition and fees, but postpones full-time income for at least four years. Furthermore, graduates must find employment on their own after they finish school and may be deeply in debt from student loans.

Part of an academic degree’s popularity comes from teachers and parents preferring that students obtain a college degree after high school graduation. “Education has done a very good job of selling education,” said Dudley Light, the regional director in Texas for the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, in a Martin Center interview. Even students with poor academic skills can succumb to the social pressure; after listening to their teachers, parents, guidance counselors, and peers throughout junior high and high school pushing college, not pursuing a college degree can feel like failure.

With so much attention focused on four-year college degrees, high school students aren’t aware of all their options after graduation, and the apprenticeship system is left to be spread via word of mouth.

“Young folks don’t understand the concept of apprenticeship. That word doesn’t mean anything to them because they didn’t grow up with it,” said Brenda Dant, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors, in a Martin Center interview. The IAPHCC, a trade group, tries to correct that ignorance by sending members into schools to speak with students. In talking about their work, representatives tie “apprenticeship” to words that hold resonance with students, words like “internship” or “mentorship.” The hope is that local outreach will find workers to replace retiring baby boomers and expand the apprenticeship system.

The United States already has an extensive apprenticeship system in place, even though it pales in comparison with the systems of its European counterparts. The Atlantic noted that “Today in America, fewer than 5 percent of young people train as apprentices, the overwhelming majority in the construction trades. In Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent—in fields as diverse as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, and hospitality.”

Still, apprenticeship is becoming more common in the U.S. Nationally, 21,000 registered programs have more than 505,000 apprentices as of 2016, a figure that has climbed 29 percent since 2011, according to the Department of Labor. Programs are operated either on the federal level or by individual states. (The Department of Labor can only track registered apprenticeships; some number of unregistered apprenticeships exist, but estimates vary widely.) And employers and apprentices seem happy with the system—a 2009 report from the Urban Institute found that nine out of every 10 employers would “strongly recommend” registered apprenticeships and 65 percent of employers had completion rates above 70 percent in their programs. That’s better than the 59 percent six-year graduation rate for college students. Employers have some concerns about the bureaucracy and time required for registering new programs, but it seems the bigger issue is how many apprenticeship positions go unfilled.

“Growing the apprenticeship system today in the United States, even at a modest level, could be transformative,” said Brent Parton, deputy director of the center on education and skills at the New America Foundation, in a Martin Center interview. “It’s really an underutilized way of learning, something that’s really been something of a best-kept secret in a handful of industries.”

Apprentices don’t just spend four years on construction sites under the sun; they are also learning in college-style classes without taking out federal student loans.

Expanding apprenticeship programs will be difficult when it attracts few young people relative to college, and few young people are even aware of it. Scaling the program will be difficult without more funding to educate employers on the benefits of apprenticeships and how to establish their own programs; however, the federal government has been responsive to this problem. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have appropriated money for apprenticeships: Obama sent about $250 million toward apprenticeship program expansion and Trump is calling for a further $200 million investment (though the details of that plan have not been fully explained).

Today, many apprenticeship programs partner with local community colleges and technical schools to train apprentices. The Urban Institute study found that 58 percent of employers used community colleges and public technical colleges for classroom training. Apprentices don’t just spend four years on construction sites under the sun; they are also learning in college-style classes without taking out federal student loans.

“Universities and colleges are beginning to understand the value of the training that’s being conducted in the apprenticeship program,” Light said. Over 300 colleges have partnered with employers in the Registered Apprenticeship-College Consortium, a national organization that translates apprenticeship work into college credentials, which can help workers earn associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

These partnerships may change which industries use apprenticeships, too. The construction, military, and manufacturing sectors dominate, but public administration, health care, and information technology use apprentices. Additionally, finance and insurance, real estate, and accommodation and food services are starting to use apprenticeship programs and many boosters see expansion in these sectors as key. A recent study from Harvard Business School found that creating apprenticeships for graphic designers, insurance claims adjusters, and medical transcriptionists, among others, could mean 3.3 million new apprenticeships. That would triple the number of occupations that use apprenticeships and quadruple the number of apprentices.

Still, there are other reasons why there has not been a more rapid expansion of the apprenticeship concept. One of them is economic reality. The modern economy, where workers have more mobility and an easier time of finding another job, makes employers wary of investing in worker training.

Economic cycles cause other problems. Apprenticeship tends to expand with a boom and contract with a bust. Because apprenticeships train workers more narrowly than a college degree, this specialized knowledge is less flexible and can make transitioning into another job difficult. When another economic recession hits, or technological change makes some jobs obsolete, current and former apprentices could feel the pain of economic transition the most.

Another dynamic is that apprentices tend to be older than the traditional college student; their average age is 28 years old. At that point, apprentices have passed beyond concerns about the social stigma of enrolling in a program.

With more apprentices ignoring the possible stigma, that could result in workers finding jobs that match their skills and a reduction in student debt—for students and for the taxpayers who subsidize the loans. However, it’s important to treat apprenticeships as one option of many for education and economic training with its own costs and benefits—much like a college degree.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    For most small businesses, young workers in the 1980s could keep up with the computer revolution as it developed over the next 35 years. That was their apprenticeship — on the job training.

    The complexity of software, hardware and business practices since that time has increased to the point were those workers, now retiring as a cohort, are irreplaceable. The knowledge and experience that corporations now take for granted took decades to produce, making knowledge transfer on this scale an unachieveable goal, with or without apprenticeship.

    Consequently, the combination of rising wages and young workers actively participating in on the job training over a period of decades has produced false expectations that are simply unachieveable under the present conditions. The use of bureaucratization and hierarchicalization as a strategy for managing organizational risk effectively undermines the kind of commitment required to keep up, leaving hiring managers in an impossible situation. Apprenticeship is not the answer.

    Changes in the working environment over the past 30 or 40 years are responsible for any perceived skills gap. Like a train conductor walking down the aisle on a moving train, managers have been lulled into ignoring the scenes outside whizzing by. That speeding train has now stopped, and everyone is getting off. Artificial intelligence and automation are the next station, and the train will be moving even faster to get there.

  • OldJarhead03

    Apprenticeship, whether partnered with a college or not, presents the same problems as attending a university. What is the curriculum? What is it worth? Is it marketable? There are as many horror stories about worthless “technical school” diplomas as there are about worthless college degrees. AI and robotic replacement of workers? Simply two more factors to consider, and crystal balls are in short supply.

  • Jane S. Shaw

    Some years ago a former trustee of a North Carolina community college said that apprenticeship was a good idea but the term struck fear in the hearts of employers because of its connection with labor unions. I don’t know if that’s a valid concern or not, but it might be a factor holding these programs back.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      You are correct — unions, at least in the trades, are the sponsors of apprenticeship programs. Only unions are willing to invest in a worker’s “human capital,” at least in the trades. See David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor, 184-186, for an 1880’s overview of shop culture and apprenticeships. For the even earlier period, Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America.

      The take away is two-fold: that the social institution of apprenticeship died more than one-hundred years ago along with “shop culture” (as noted in the article, no one has heard of it), and secondly, this represents the victory of liberal education over practical arts by academicians.

      Montgomery rightfully calls this the Fall of the House of Labor. As far as I can tell, George Leef’s books, Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement, does not mention apprenticeship.

  • FC

    The problem is not (just) with the unions. The problem is that we have convinced our junior colleges to structure their curriculum around the students pursuing a four-year degree. That is, junior colleges offer a lower cost alternative to the first two years at a college or university.

    Instead they should be offering professional trade programs. In the central part of the country their is significant demand for trained CNC operators, machinists, welders, diesel mechanics, etc. Why are the junior colleges not fulfilling this quantifiable need for well-paid positions (that have immediate employment opportunities? ) The reasons are numerous, but it comes down effectively to two factors: (A) Our political leaders and educators have convinced themselves, and the public, that you “cannot be successful” without a four-year degree, and (B) as a society (again with the reinforcement of politicians and educators) we readily imply that those who work with their hands are somewhat diminished, i.e. they only do that work because they are incapable of doing non-manual labor (and they often equate it, in the same sentence, no less, with “flipping burgers”.

    These same politicians and educators will continue to draw funding from the tax base, and never, if ever, give consideration to vocational programs. You will hear them speaking about the greater need of “funding for education”–but their focus is on the four-year university and never on vocational education.

    IF the junior colleges were honest with themselves, they could fulfill this need. There are specific examples where they have (the junior college near the BMW plant in South Carolina “partnered” with BMW to develop specific coursework for the skills BMW required for employment. Other junior colleges have developed technical education, with the input of local employers to provide a steady stream of certified (demonstrable and competent skills) individuals to fill the available jobs in the area.

    It surely isn’t that difficult. It’s a matter of focus and the motivation to shift funding (away from college prep coursework) to meet a known need. A 20 year old person can literally walk into a well-compensated job (often at an income substantially greater than a “degreed” person) without the burden of college debt. Cases in point: the demand for certified collision repair persons in certain parts of the country supports an annual base salary in the range of $100,000. CNC operators in the Midwest can start between $4000-$5,000 per month and above.

    Should this not be the need our community colleges be filling?

  • Anonymous

    I agree with apprenticeships, too, but I think that they should begin when people are younger, not older, particularly as an alternative to high school. I believe that academics are necessary until up to an eighth-grade level, and that anything further is pretty much a waste of time. While classes like algebra and P.E. are okay for teaching and fitness respectively, those courses have no relevancy to my current life. I see no use for algebra, and I don’t play team sports. There are students who are better off training for a specific career because they may not like academics very much. Why have them wait until they’re grown up to train in a vocation? If they begin as young teens rather than waiting until they’re 18 or older, they can be equipped with these skills by the time they’re legal adults.

    For those who are worried about automation: people are needed to build and maintain the machines, and maybe there could be apprenticeships for those. This would be awesome for those who like inventing.

  • gospace

    I can tell you right now why companies don’t want to train apprentices in boiler or plant operation. They’re a drain on the bottom line with no real contribution to make.
    Used to be plants had wipers and oilers and other titles to take care of a lot of the operator drudge work allowing operators to concentrate on controlling the equipment. Along the way they would pick up lessons in how to operate from the operators, so when one retired or dropped dead- someone who knew the plant was available to fill the position.
    Plants are much cleaner and tighter today. Sealants are gaskets are better; leaks aren’t tolerated and wiped up, they’re fixed. Natural gas burns cleaner than solid or liquid fuels. And even if you’re burning liquids or solids, the pollution control equipment minimizes the dirt that used to come out of the stack and coat everything. A company that has an actual apprentice may end up training him (unlikely to be her) and then lose him to another company that didn’t have any apprentices, but had a job opening and a raise for their apprentice. I spent 4 months in 2016 working 7 days a week before we found 2 new operators. From other plants, which are now looking for new operators…