Scaling Up Apprenticeships at Home: Lessons from Abroad

Apprenticeships offer high quality training that combines work-based learning with academic instruction. They raise the earnings of workers and reduce skill shortages experienced by firms. The Labor Department's Office of Apprenticeship is leading the effort to increase the numbers and widen the occupational coverage of U.S. apprenticeships with demonstration grants, enhanced technical assistance, and the development of competency skill standards for apprenticeship.

Today, with support from Congress and the Obama administration, the department is requesting contract proposals from national industry and workforce intermediary organizations to expand registered apprenticeships in the United States.

Students at the San Francisco Electrical Industry Apprenticeship and Training Trust in California demonstrate their skills. Apprentices at the San Francisco Electrical Industry Apprenticeship and Training Trust in California demonstrate their skills.

Nearly every country with a large-scale apprenticeship system relies heavily on intermediaries, organizations which operate between government and private individuals, families and employers.

In Germany, for example, Chambers of Commerce encourage firms to operate programs, hire apprentices, help company trainers, assess apprentices, and award certificates upon completion of training.

England’s intermediaries, private employment and learning providers, have persuaded many employers to start apprenticeship programs. They’ve also helped with implementation, screened applicants for available openings, and provided the required off-job training. Nearly 40 percent of participating employers in England reported that their main reason for offering apprenticeships was “being approached by a training provider.”  Many knew little about apprenticeship prior to their work with training providers. However, about 80 percent continue to offer apprenticeships after the initial wave of apprentices completes. Intermediary support explains a good deal of employer satisfaction.

Australia offers another example where intermediaries are of vital importance to a scaled-up apprenticeship system. Group Training Organizations have worked with over 100,000 employers to set up and operate apprenticeships. The GTOs market apprenticeships to employers, find good candidates for apprenticeships, and arrange for off-job training. They also partner with schools and government career services to increase awareness of apprenticeships among students and parents.

In the U.S., the most prominent intermediaries promoting and operating apprenticeships are trade unions and construction industry associations. Both groups can take credit for funding and running high quality apprenticeship programs that generate high wages, matched by high productivity. The workers and employers often fund and conduct classroom training, usually in their own training centers.

The construction apprenticeship models have generated a highly skilled and productive workforce. But extending apprenticeships to other occupations and industries – such as health, IT, logistics and energy – will likely require a wider range of intermediaries.

Today’s opportunities for expanding registered apprenticeships are extraordinary. Apprenticeships offer a proven approach to learning occupational skills. They are cost-effective for workers, who do not have to accumulate college debt or forego income while pursuing training. They are cost-effective for firms, which can recoup their investments through reduced recruitment and turnover costs and enhanced productivity. And they are cost-effective for the government, since employers bear most of the training costs.

What has been missing in the United States for many years is a mechanism for attracting enough employers to the world of registered apprenticeship. That is why this week’s announcement of AppprenticeshipUSA contracts for industry intermediaries is so important. These intermediaries will play a key role in stimulating employers to adopt apprenticeships as a primary tool for recruiting and building a skilled workforce, which will ultimately lead to a dramatic increase in opportunities for rewarding careers for American workers.

Robert Lerman is an institute fellow at the Urban Institute, emeritus professor of economics at American University and a research fellow at IZA in Bonn, Germany.


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I am a product of an apprenticeship program. The skills I have today are due to the training I received and the work I put into my craft as a journeyman plumber and a pipefitter. Unfortunately many of the construction projects here in Los Angles and across the country do not have programs in place that encourage employers to utilize apprenticeship programs. Unless the job is under a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) or fall under the umbrella of prevailing wage, employer seem to look for bodies for the job and no vision of creating a future workforce for their own industry. livable wages, benefits and training are what helped my achieve the American Dream and it has done the same for my two sons. The bottom line here is that it works.

As Faculty Learning Coordinator on a pair of NSF-ATE CREATE center projects, I was privileged to travel with a team of renewable energy educators to Australia (2013) and Germany (2014) to review their technician workforce education efforts in that sector. In Australia, we heard about apprenticeship programs during visits to TAFEs and industry sites, and in Germany, witnessed first-hand how the seamless integration of work-based learning - in particular apprenticeships - result in optimal alignment of education with workforce needs, not to mention successes with student learning and retention. Great to see this smart approach to building capacity.

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