For many people, mention apprenticeships and they immediately think of programs supported by labor unions that provide on-the-job training in a technical trade such as plumbing, HVAC or construction. Apprenticeships in the 21st century look very different, though, as more technology and service fields such as nursing, education, IT, energy and the insurance industry embrace apprenticeships. Leaders in these fields see apprenticeships as a way of filling the growing number of middle-skills jobs, defined as jobs that require some postsecondary education but less than a four-year college degree.

21st Century Apprenticeships

What does a 21st century apprenticeship look like? Much like apprenticeships of old, modern apprenticeships still combine paid, structured, on-the-job training with relevant classroom instruction. And unlike other on-the-job training, the best apprenticeship models also include:

  • Ongoing assessment measured against established skills and competency standards
  • Wage increases linked to demonstrated increases in skills and abilities
  • Culmination in portable, industry-recognized credentials

Given the strong connections among modern apprenticeships, expanding job opportunities, and the ability for learners to earn while they learn, it’s no surprise that a recent New America report found that 88 percent of Americans had a favorable view of apprenticeships, and 83 percent supported expanding federal funding to support modern apprenticeships.

The business, economic mobility and higher education case for expanding apprenticeships

The United States faces a significant labor shortfall in a number of critical fields. The National Skills Coalition estimates that between 2014 and 2024, 48 percent of all U.S. job openings will be for middle-skills jobs. However, in 2015, there was a 10 percentage point gap between the number of middle-skills jobs and the number of Americans prepared to fill those jobs. To put it another way, 53 percent of jobs required middle-level skills, but only 43 percent of the American labor force was trained for those positions. As a result, almost 70 percent of human resources executives report that their inability to both attract and retain staff for middle-skills jobs frequently impacts their company’s performance. Apprenticeships, with their on-the-job training focus and aligned credentials, provide employers with a critical opportunity to build workforce capacity. In fact, apprenticeships are so successful that the U.S. Department of Labor reports 94 percent of apprentices continue employment at the conclusion of an apprenticeship program.

Employees also benefit from modern apprenticeships. Since a key component of apprenticeship programs is the ability to “learn and earn,” apprenticeships also provide economically viable pathways to workforce credentials for students. For some workers, apprenticeships can make a postsecondary credential an achievable reality, not just a dream. This is especially the case for many employees, notably single parents, who cannot take time off from work to attend school full or even part time. The ability to earn a high-quality credential with immediately marketable skills in a high-growth industry is life changing and can have a positive impact on whole families and entire communities. In essence, apprenticeships become a significant tool for improving equity and reducing poverty.

Finally, apprenticeships benefit higher education institutions, especially those institutions already closely aligned with regional economic needs. Having historically provided significant capacity for workforce education, community colleges especially can benefit from the expansion of apprenticeship programs. Modern programs improve these institutions’ ability to meet regional workforce education needs while also developing connected credentials that can expand over the lifetime of learners.

Recent funding announcement in support of apprenticeships

At its April 2019 annual meeting, the American Association of Community Colleges, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor, announced a major apprenticeship initiative that will add 16,000 new apprenticeships over the next three years. In June 2019, the Department of Labor also announced awards totaling $183.8 million to support the development and expansion of industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs). Additionally, Labor recently announced a new $100 million grant program, Apprenticeships: Closing the Gap, which provides funding for the launch or expansion of apprenticeship programs. The deadline for applications is September 24, 2019.

The socioeconomic benefit of apprenticeships cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Apprenticeships enhance state and local economies, attract businesses, provide job seekers an affordable pathway through college, allow for businesses to upskill and retain workers, connect underserved populations with employment and education, and grow opportunities within American communities.

Are you looking to learn how to create a viable path to skills development that allows people to earn livable wages, grows your local economy and makes American businesses overall more competitive?

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Thomas P. Miller and Associates (TPMA) are collaborating to provide you with innovative solutions to leverage this proven workforce development tool. CAEL and TPMA understand that apprenticeships are an important part of the workforce and economic development ecosystem in the 21st century. Our combined team offers dynamic strategies that allow you to successfully navigate resources and engage relevant stakeholders to develop a robust apprenticeship system that works for you and your community.

Together CAEL and TPMA can help you:

  1. Employ a more efficient and effective competency-based education system and prior learning assessment to create defined and accelerated pathways that incorporate work-based learning
  2. Analyze labor market information to identify in-demand occupations and create new apprenticeships
  3. Work with state and regional stakeholders to facilitate partnerships that foster apprenticeship programs
  4. Integrate apprenticeship programs into a larger experiential strategy designed for adult learners
  5. Develop toolkits and resources on apprenticeships for two- and four-year colleges and universities
  6. Train your teams on apprenticeship models and best practices

For more information, and to learn how apprenticeship programs can benefit your business, local economy and state, we invite you to speak with our experts who can provide customized technical assistance.

Dawn Lang

Senior Vice President


Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

Jonathan Faris


Business Development

Thomas P. Miller & Associates