by Nayeli Ellen

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In a recent Education Next article, apprenticeships are highlighted as an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional college education in the US, particularly amidst the mounting burden of student loan debt. As more young people seek no-debt career training, European-style apprenticeship programs are expanding in the country. 

Apprenticeships: A Rising Alternative to Traditional College Education in the US

Key takeaways:

  • Apprenticeships are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to traditional college education in the US, offering a path to middle-class wages without the burden of student loan debt.
  • The number of people starting apprenticeships has doubled in the past decade, with innovative approaches like third-party intermediaries recruiting, training, and matching employees with firms gaining traction.
  • Flexible apprenticeship models, particularly in the tech sector, are on the rise, providing less centralized training options for young people entering the workforce. However, the US faces challenges and costs in adapting European apprenticeship models.
  • Debates persist over the best approach to funding apprenticeships, the role of government support, and the implementation of proposed solutions like extending federal college Pell Grants to non-degree training programs or reallocating federal college support to workforce training grant funds.

Lakshmi Balasubramaniam, a 25-year-old University of Cincinnati graduate, found a fulfilling career through a cybersecurity apprenticeship after struggling with low-paying jobs. In the US, apprenticeships are becoming more appealing due to the rising burden of college-loan debt, as they offer an alternative path to middle-class wages without loan debt.

Before the pandemic, the number of people starting apprenticeships had doubled over the previous decade, with growth in non-construction fields. Innovative approaches to apprenticeships, such as third-party intermediaries recruiting, training, and matching employees with firms, have emerged as an attractive option for cautious companies.

Advocates propose using more federal tax dollars to support apprenticeships, but debates persist over the best approach and the extent of government control. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute estimates that apprenticeships could be a good fit for 25-30% of young people in the US, a significant increase from 1% in 2018.

As interest in non-college, no-debt career training surges, European-style apprentice programs and youth apprenticeships are expanding in the US. Organizations such as the German American Chamber of Commerce and CareerWise argue that investing in apprenticeship programs can yield a real return on investment for businesses, even without federal aid. The debate over workforce development investment will shape the future of apprenticeships in the American education and employment landscape.

Flexible Apprenticeships

A 15-month British apprenticeship model is gaining ground in the US, particularly in the tech sector. This new model, characterized by less centralized, third-party intermediaries facilitating training funded by tax revenue, contrasts with the traditional European model where government bodies or legally designated organizations serve as a bridge between schools and employers. Apprenti, a Seattle-based nonprofit intermediary, and Multiverse, a British firm founded by Euan Blair, are two leaders in the short-term tech apprenticeship field.

Companies like Achieve Partners advocate for career training that bypasses college, as colleges often don’t adequately prepare people for jobs, and companies lack resources to train new employees. Despite challenges in navigating federal and state registration and laws, the growing popularity of this new apprenticeship model signals a shift towards more flexible, less centralized training options for young people entering the workforce.

The US Struggles to Adapt European Models

The US faces challenges and costs adapting European apprenticeship models, particularly in the tech sector. These short-term, flexible apprenticeships necessitate frequent skill upgrades for workers. Jennifer Carlson, co-founder of Apprenti, notes US companies’ reluctance to invest in longer apprenticeships, leading to accelerated training programs. The OECD, however, expresses concerns about these short-term programs, advocating for more robust systems with work-based learning.

Short-term apprenticeships require significant investments, with companies paying apprentices as full-time employees and covering additional training costs. Unlike Europe, where public funding supports industry-provided training, US companies must bear these expenses. Proposed solutions, such as extending federal college Pell Grants to non-degree training programs or reallocating federal college support to workforce training grant funds, lack widespread support and implementation.

Efforts to streamline federal apprenticeship registration and improve company rewards are underway, with the Advisory Commission on Apprenticeships set to present its final report this year. While opinions differ on the necessity of government incentives for short-term apprenticeships, some argue that government support could accelerate their adoption in the US.

Current Stats

As industries across the United States grapple with a growing demand for skilled workers, apprenticeships have emerged as a critical tool in providing individuals with the essential skills and training needed for a diverse range of careers. Under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Labor, apprenticeship programs have seen significant growth in recent years, highlighting the importance of workforce development and skills-based training.

After delving into the most recent data, we have uncovered five intriguing trends surrounding apprenticeships in the U.S.:

  • In 2021, an impressive 23,000 registered apprenticeship programs were available, spanning a range of industries such as construction, healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor revealed that in 2020, an impressive 633,000 active apprentices were participating in programs across the nation. This figure is expected to soar as skills-based training and workforce development increasingly take the spotlight. 
  • The national average completion rate for apprenticeships in 2021 was around 65%, with some fluctuations based on industry and program length.
  • Despite concerted efforts to increase diversity within apprenticeship programs, my research revealed that in 2021, a staggering 90% of registered apprentices were male, with women accounting for just 10% of the total apprenticeship population.
  • The Department of Labor points out that apprentices in the U.S. can expect to start with an average wage of about $15 per hour. Upon completing their apprenticeship, they have the potential to earn an average yearly salary of $70,000.  This exciting prospect emphasizes the power of apprenticeships in paving the way for sustainable, family-supporting careers.

Related articles:

Bowie State University Pioneers New Tech Internship Program for HBCU Students

College Corps Program Eases Student Debt and Empowers Communities

Japan’s University Enrollment Crisis: A Harbinger of Challenges for the US Higher Education System

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