Registered Apprenticeship: A European Idea with an American Twist

This is the first of two blogs on apprenticeships in the U.S. The second blog will discuss apprenticeship programs for high school students.

By the Numbers/Registered Apprenticeships
Average wage: $15/hour
Average hourly wage after apprenticeship: $24.77 ($51,522 annually)
U.S. apprenticeship programs: 29,000
Apprenticeship occupations: 1,000
U.S. Registered Apprentices: 505,000 (FY 2016)
Eligible starting age: 16 or 18
Average age of apprentices: 30
Average employers’ ROI: $1.45 for every $1 spent

European countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, have a centuries-long tradition of apprenticeship. While not exactly new to the U.S., the past few years have seen a dramatic growth in use of the post-high school paid apprenticeship model.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have praised apprenticeships as pathways to good-paying jobs. During his last year in office, President Obama invested $90 million in expanding apprenticeship across the country. President Trump has touted the German apprenticeship model several times during his first few months in office as a way to drastically reduce youth unemployment and modernize training for America’s workforce.

German and Swiss apprenticeships are infused into their education systems, and most secondary students there choose apprenticeships over what we would consider a traditional college path (in Switzerland, almost 70 percent of all students choose to do an apprenticeship). As for the United States, in recent years, the federal government, as well as individual states have seized upon the potential for the German/Swiss model and greatly expanded the number of “apprenticeable” occupations as a way to close the skills gap.

Apprenticeships the world over, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), typically contain a mix of work placements with on-the-job skills training and education and training outside the workplace (in the U.S., most often in community or technical colleges) that leads to an industry-recognized certificate or credential and a guaranteed job.

In Germany and Switzerland, apprenticeships are a trusted, common way to train across the workforce. In the U.S., until recently, official Registered Apprenticeships had been uncommon and typically reserved for a limited number of building and construction trades.

Traditional occupations: automotive technician, baker, bricklayer, carpenter, electrician, machinist, maintenance mechanic, operating engineer, painter, roofer, sheet metal worker, structural steel worker, and tool and die maker

Newer occupations: computer programmer, computer service mechanic, dairy technologist, dental assistant, electronics technician, environmental analyst, fire fighter, horticulturist, insurance claims adjuster, laboratory technician, optical technician, wastewater treatment plant operator, and chef

Over the past few years, however, the federal government and states have been looking to expand Registered Apprenticeships dramatically in two ways: (1) to look far beyond traditional trades for “apprenticeable” occupations, and (2) to engage more members of underrepresented populations (such as women, low-income students, and minorities) in all sectors. This expansion has led to a number of “non-traditional” sectors adopting the apprenticeship model, including financial services, cyber-security, and health care.

Two states stand out:

  • Georgia: Through a partnership with the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, the Technical College System of Georgia, and other education and state agency partners, Georgia WorkSmart helps organizations create apprenticeship programs that include curriculum and classroom instruction development. Assistance with national apprenticeship registration is also provided through this partnership. Through an American Apprenticeship Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2015, George Worksmart is focused on apprenticeships in Advanced Manufacturing, expanding entry-level Advanced Manufacturing apprenticeships, creating new apprenticeship programs in Industrial Maintenance and Mechatronics to upskill incumbent workers, and develop and implement strategies to attract members of underrepresented populations to Georgia’s advanced manufacturing workforce.
  • South Carolina: Apprenticeship CarolinaTM, a division of the SC Technical College System, works to ensure all employers in South Carolina have access to information and consultative services, at no charge to the employer, regarding sponsorship of a demand-driven Registered Apprenticeship program. Apprenticeship consultants are available to guide companies through the entire registered apprenticeship process. Apprenticeship CarolinaTM averages more than 120 new apprentices per month, and has served a total of 17,893 apprentices thus far.

Registered Apprenticeships are becoming a very practical alternative to (or stepping stone on the way to) traditional four-year colleges for students of any age, looking to pursue a fulfilling career. With a mix of classroom learning, on-the-job training, and the ability to earn a living wage while developing skills, apprenticeships are poised to provide Americans with a viable pathway to the middle class.

Marjorie Cohen is Senior College & Career Readiness Specialist at AIR. Specializing in CTE and Career Pathways, Marjorie has nearly 20 years of experience in providing technical assistance and policy analysis.