Apprenticeships are one of the few bipartisan ideas in the realm of workforce development, promising an alternative way of training skilled workers without requiring higher education.
Instead of accumulating debt, students get to “earn while they learn.” President Obama offered tens of millions of dollars in grants to expand innovative apprenticeship programs, and President Trump recently issued an executive order making it easier for businesses to apply for apprenticeship approvals. Yet, while apprenticeships are a common part of the employment landscape in Europe, they represent a relatively small number of jobs in the United States. There were only 410,000 active civilian apprentices in 2016, a small fraction of the 23.4 million job postings that year. And that is after decades of widespread agreement across the political spectrum about the effectiveness of apprenticeships and the desirability of expanding them.
This analysis, conducted by Burning Glass Technologies and the Managing the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School, is designed to answer a basic question about apprenticeships: What is the true scope or potential for apprenticeships in the U.S. economy? Armed with this analysis, employers can then pursue a targeted strategy for expanding apprenticeships into more occupations, especially those areas where they see a shortage of middle skills talent. This research can inspire more questions: If business leaders and policymakers are committed to making apprenticeships more available, how many positions could be created? What are the characteristics of the occupations that lend themselves easily to apprenticeships? How might apprenticeships help close the skills gap for employers and open up opportunities for average Americans in jobs that provide rising living standards?
To determine answers, this study examined the skills demanded in job postings for more than 23 million openings in 2016. The authors identified the underlying skills in apprenticeship roles and looked for similarities in other positions. Based on this skills analysis, they find significant opportunities to expand apprenticeships in the United States:
- The number of occupations commonly filled via apprenticeships could be nearly tripled, from 27 to 74
- The number of job openings covered by this approach could be multiplied eightfold, to roughly 3.2 million
- Many of these additional opportunity areas unlock higher-value careers, offering more than a 20 percent salary premium, compared with traditional apprenticeship occupations, and
- The occupations covered by those expanded opportunities are ones employers find difficult to fill.
The occupations identified outside the 27 core group of current apprenticeships fall into two groups. One group, labeled “Expanders” (21 occupations), significantly increases the number of sub-B.A. occupations available to apprenticeships. The second group, the “Boosters” (26 occupations), extends apprenticeships into high-value, middle-skills jobs facing “degree inflation,” the phenomenon of employers raising the credentials required for a middle-skills job to include a four-year college degree. Both groups include jobs that pay a living wage and offer upward mobility. The most significant difference between them is whether a bachelor’s degree is currently necessary for finding the right talent to fill a middle-skills position.
This is not to say that significant barriers to expanding apprenticeships do not exist—they do. But this analysis shows that there is significant unrealized potential in the apprenticeship field, across many occupations in the U.S. economy. By using an apprenticeship approach, businesses struggling with skills gaps can take steps to ensure workers are trained to employer specifications—not to mention getting the value of apprentices’ work during training. For many middle- and lower-skills workers seeking to move up career ladders, apprenticeships offer a more viable alternative to traditional trade and technical schools. One barrier in the technical school system is that students either miss out on gaining work experience while they attend school, or they work but can only attend school part-time. Apprenticeships offer workers an alternative that requires neither sacrificing income nor risking exhaustion. Another significant barrier to apprenticeships is that technical schools often find it challenging to forge relationships with potential employers. In an apprenticeship model, employers and local educators can work together to define a curriculum as well as on-the-job training that is aligned with employers’ needs and helps direct young talent into the workforce.