As “career and technical education” (CTE) continues to get more attention from policymakers, education leaders, and the media, one valuable component of CTE often gets overlooked: apprenticeships. The Obama and Trump administrations both made efforts to boost interest in these career pathways, but participation remains low compared to other postsecondary options. In a report from the American Enterprise Institute, Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider survey the current state of apprenticeships in the U.S. and conclude that community colleges are best positioned to fertilize this particular landscape.

The authors pull from a variety of data sources to synthesize an overview of the current state of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. and internationally. They gather demographic information about apprentices from Department of Labor (DOL) databases and from a 2012 Mathematica study on the social benefits of apprenticeships. They also draw inspiration from a number of international surveys and case studies.

There exists no formal definition of an apprenticeship, but de Alva and Schneider consider it a formal program that includes both paid on-the-job training and a set of related coursework. They find that most states require at least 2,000 hours of supervised work experience and 144 hours of additional coursework, usually spanning four years. Today 13,656 programs are registered with the Department of Labor (DOL) or a related state agency, overwhelmingly in the construction trades and manufacturing.

Although they’ve been around for centuries, and have long led to well-paid careers in many fields, apprenticeships recently developed a reputation as fallback options for those who are “not college material,” and both parents and high school counselors have advised against pursuing them. This is unfortunate, given the steady earnings that apprentices enjoy immediately upon completion (and sometimes while participating). Nationally, 87 percent of apprentices find full-time employment, with an average starting salary of at least $50,000—the same starting salary as if they had earned a bachelor’s degree.

Other nations do not share the American skepticism towards apprenticeship programs. In England, 70 percent of apprenticeship candidates earned top marks on the General Certificate of Education (GCE) exam. These “A-level” scores could get them into most selective colleges, which means many students are choosing an apprenticeship over a four-year university. European programs generally span a wider variety of occupations, expanding their appeal to more students. de Alva and Schneider do not explore European systems with the intention of mimicking them, but see them as guides to how the U.S. can strengthen its own apprenticeship infrastructure.

They identify community colleges, which already offer a variety of non-bachelor’s degree opportunities—both certificates and lesser degrees—for students of all ages, as best positioned to do this work. However, structural changes are required. One of the greatest barriers facing the expansion of apprenticeships is the strict course-credit structure that American colleges follow. Traditional definitions of “credit” do not allow for the on-the-job hours that comprise most of an apprenticeship program’s requirements, nor do they trust non-academic instructors to oversee the majority of a student’s education. Transforming our understanding of the college credit will not only help apprenticeships regain their standing as a viable academic option, it will expand funding opportunities for aspiring apprentices. Federal student aid could then be applied to apprenticeship programs, which would give access to more students and give incentives to community colleges to expand their offerings. The authors also argue that more state and federal money should be leveraged because, even though apprentices can be expensive, the DOL estimates a $58,000 net social benefit over time per apprentice trained.

de Alva and Schneider are right that community colleges find themselves in a great position to reinvigorate and grow apprenticeships as respected postsecondary pathways. It is perhaps optimistic to hope that every campus in the country will open its arms to non-traditional, less-measurable academic and credit requirements, but the vast potential of apprenticeships does indeed hinge on our willingness to be flexible.

SOURCE: de Alva, Jorge Klor and Mark Schneider, “Apprenticeships and community colleges: Do they have a future together?American Enterprise Institute, May 2018.

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.