Apprenticeship Programs Gain Little Traction in U.S.

By Steve Bates May 13, 2015
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Apprenticeships, a staple of educational systems across Europe, are lagging in the U.S. Some business, education and government leaders in this country are trying to change that, but many acknowledge that they face a tough challenge.

With a decline in certain industries, an increase in automation and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, the steam has gone out of apprenticeships over recent decades. The U.S. job market now places a premium on specialized technological and analytical skills. And many employers are reluctant to invest in training for young people who might take their skills to a competitor.

High school students, under social pressure to pursue four-year college degrees, have little desire for crafts such as pipe fitting that have been traditional niches for apprenticeships. “Culture is a big part of it,” said Joseph Parilla, a research analyst in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “Every family and student is making a decision about how they want to pursue their education,” and the conversation often begins and ends with four-year colleges. “There probably is something of a stigma about apprenticeships.”

That’s a shame, said Anthony P. Carnevale, Ph.D., professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C.: “There are logical and empirical reasons why apprenticeships are highly regarded. They work.”

Some proponents of apprenticeships say that they can help stem an alarming increase in youth unemployment and that they support people who don’t want or need a four-year degree. “Apprenticeships are a great way to provide on-the-job training for people to go on to middle-class jobs,” stated Jennifer Erickson, director of competitiveness and economic growth at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

According to a Brookings Institution report, apprentices make up only 0.2 percent of the U.S. labor force—fewer than 300,000 people—compared with 2.2 percent of the workforce in Canada and 3.7 percent in Germany. The U.S. government and some states are trying to nudge employers into offering more apprenticeships, though state programs vary substantially in size and focus. In April 2015, the White House announced an initiative involving employers, labor unions and foundations to expand apprenticeships and other on-the-job training opportunities. In December 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor announced $100 million in grants to fund apprenticeships in growing industries such as health care, IT and advanced manufacturing. Also in 2014, Congress retooled the federal workforce training system. And the Obama administration has proposed making community college enrollment free for many young Americans.

Some employment experts say these efforts are well-intentioned but inadequate; Carnevale noted that employers spend nearly $600 billion on formal and informal training each year. Meanwhile, internships are growing faster than apprenticeships because they require less commitment from employers and educators, he said.

The average age of European apprentices is late teens; apprenticeships help Europeans gain entry-level jobs. In the U.S., the average age is mid- to late-20s; apprenticeships are reserved in large part for employees who have established work history.

Nancy Hoffman, Ph.D., a vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit, said this helps explain why, in the U.S., “Only about one-fourth of teenagers are getting any work experience, about half the number from 2000. We need many more options for 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds. There is not a culture among employers of creating a pipeline of young workers.” Hoffman said apprenticeships could take off in the U.S. if intermediary organizations such as workforce investment boards and chambers of commerce connect educators and employers. “There are not enough intermediaries.”

Said Carnevale: “The European model is just not something that U.S. employers are willing to pay for or participate in in any way until they can take it to scale.”

Success Stories

However, programs in South Carolina and Virginia offer proof that apprenticeships can work.

South Carolina started a statewide apprenticeship program in 2003 after a state Chamber of Commerce report highlighted a troubling skills gap. “We were looking for that connection between education and business,” said Brad Neese, director of the program. “I didn’t really know what apprenticeships were when we started this.”

Initial business reaction to the program was tepid. “There was a real educational process we had to go through,” Neese said, and it helped that apprenticeship program leaders had “no preconceived notion” about what types of jobs to focus on. The program sought apprenticeships in the health care, IT, and hotel and tourism industries in addition to manufacturing. Participation has been particularly strong among women and minorities, Neese said.

He said South Carolina has learned that apprenticeship programs must “make it as simple as possible for employers.” The person supervising and mentoring the apprentice must be well-trained, he stated, adding that apprentices should be given college credit for their efforts.

In Newport News, Va., a partnership between Old Dominion University and Newport News Shipbuilding is allowing students to earn a four-year engineering degree while working as apprentices at the shipyard and looking forward to securing regular full-time jobs there. The Apprentice School has been offering apprenticeships in the shipbuilding industry since 1919 and has graduated more than 10,000 apprentices.

Students learn more than shipbuilding skills. “We focus relentlessly on the development of students’ leadership,” said Everett H. Jordan Jr., The Apprentice School’s director of education and a graduate of the apprenticeship program. Many graduates have advanced to management roles at the shipbuilding company, and “we are proud of our graduates working in leadership positions all over the world.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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