Apprenticeships: A Renewed Focus in the United States


Apprenticeships, which are training programs that combine on-the-job training with accompanying study, have functioned as pathways to careers since the Middle Ages. These programs are especially popular in a number of European nations as an alternative to higher education for career development. Although apprenticeship programs have long been a part of the landscape in the United States, there is renewed interest in how they might be used to address our rapidly evolving workforce needs.

This renewed interest was recently on display as President Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order Expanding Apprenticeships in America on June 15. Proclaiming, “In today’s rapidly changing economy, it is more important than ever to prepare workers to fill both existing and newly created jobs and prepare workers for the jobs of the future,” the executive order instructs the Department of Labor to promote the development of new and existing apprenticeship programs. Trump echoed these sentiments in his address prior to signing the executive order when he said, “Not only will our apprentices transform their lives, but they will also transform our lives in the truest sense. Today’s apprentices will construct the roads and bridges that will move our citizens, they will bend the metal and steel that shape our cities, and they will pioneer the new technology that drives our commerce.”

The Current State of Apprenticeships in the U.S.

Currently, there are only 600,000 apprenticeships in the United States, less than 1 percent of all jobs. How does the President’s executive order propose to expand access to apprenticeships and provide more opportunities for Americans to “earn-and-learn?” A central component of the administration’s plans is the proposed $200 million redirection of Department of Labor funds to increase the number of apprenticeship programs. Additionally, the administration proposes that the Department of Labor relax regulations around who can offer apprenticeships in order to allow third party providers such as trade and industry groups, companies, nonprofit organizations, unions, and joint labor-management groups to develop and offer “industry-recognized apprenticeships.” Finally, the executive order instructs the Department of Labor to develop a Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion.

As community colleges, universities, employers, and other interested organizations work to increase the number of apprenticeship programs, it will be critical that new programs are of high quality, well aligned with workforce needs, and provide learners with portable credentials. We believe that the best programs will also include well-defined outcomes that are assessed in a clear, rigorous, and transparent way. In short, every student that completes an apprenticeship program should be able to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge, ability, and skills that make up the program’s competencies. And although it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, we believe that competency-based education (CBE) is a promising path for both apprenticeship programs and more general workforce development programs.

How Competency-Based Education Plays a Role

In the coming months, Dr. Karen Yoshino and I will be exploring the role of competency-based education in workforce development programs, including programs hosted by businesses and industries as a part of ongoing employee development and training. We’ll specifically examine how CBE is blurring the lines separating corporate training and higher education; the implication of CBE for performance management in business and industry; and how CBE can be used to advance professional development opportunities in business and industry.

At the heart of the conversations surrounding apprenticeships, and workforce education in general, is a conversation about the changing relationship between education and training, and between having a job and having a career. As New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy and Michael Prebil recently wrote, “We think it’s fair to say that today’s enthusiasm for apprenticeship is about more than just its efficiency and cost-savings, though: It seems driven equally as much by a deep desire for a different relationship between education and work, and a new balance between becoming the person you want to be and making the money you need to live.” We’re looking forward to exploring with you the ways that CBE fits into this ever evolving conversation.

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