Apprenticeships are all the rage. President Trump recently announced a doubling of federal funding for apprenticeship programs to $200 million in his next budget. This follows an investment by President Obama of $50 million in the outgoing months of his administration. In fact, this follows a major rewrite of the federal legislation governing job training in 2014. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) calls for a much greater level of coordination among workforce programs.
President Trump correctly noted that the organizational framework surrounding workforce development still needs some work, but this criticism is too simplistic. States have made major strides in recent years to improve the coordination of workforce development, and some have promoted apprenticeships as a part of the effort. The WIOA legislation made a requirement for workforce plans at the state level and some states have plans to expand apprenticeships. Many states have invested state tax revenue in apprenticeships and other mechanisms to strengthen training for youth.
Ohio, for instance, has recently taken critical steps to link apprenticeship programs to young people’s educational experiences. These include: 1) expanding linkages between high schools and state-recognized pre-apprenticeship programs through the College Credit Plus program, 2) developing an optional state recognized pre-apprenticeship pathway for students in regular career and technical programs, and, 3) expanding registered apprenticeships utilizing the state community college system, particularly for non-traditional apprentice occupations and under-represented populations.
The point here is that apprenticeship programs are—not to mince words—boutique programs. A program that trains roughly 3,000 new apprentices a year in 2010 in Ohio cannot make a major dent in the labor demands for the state as a whole. In a study of ten states, only 35,000 students annually start apprenticeship programs. Ohio has over 5.8 million people working and has an unemployment rate of below 5 percent. There is great need for new entrants into the skilled trades. There are currently 7,500 jobs for “construction” alone and 700 for “welders” on OhioMeansJobs, the state online job posting system. In 2015, the combined output for all Ohio schools on an annual basis was only 654 welders. While it is projected to increase over time, the Ohio Education Research Center’s research shows that it can be very hard to meet the labor supply needs of growing firms with educational institutions. All the more reason for the apprenticeship system to be improved.
Registered apprenticeship programs can be high quality. The best evidence indicates that the median annual earnings of completers of apprenticeships are over $60,000/year in the State of Washington, which works out to a median hourly wage of $37. In the ten-state study from 2012, the average difference in annual earnings for those in skilled professions was over $6,000 between those that did an apprenticeship and those that did not.
Dr. Eric Hanushek recently suggested in an opinion piece that apprenticeships might not be the ideal education program for youth, and that young people need better general education. However, since the average age of apprentices is about 30 years old, apprenticeships are clearly serving a clientele that has tried other programs and had work experience and is looking for something new. An apprenticeship is still a great option for an adult seeking to support a family. And programs have gotten much better at linkages with community and technical colleges. In the future, they very well may be a real alternative for youth as well as 30-year-olds. But what I worry about in response to Dr. Hanushek’s work is that we throw out a good training system just because it doesn’t teach general skills as well as a good suburban high school.
In addition to being small in comparison to the demand, apprenticeships are devilishly hard to scale up. An apprenticeship is a complex system of industrial relations, including an educational component (often at a community college), a trade union supervising the curriculum and training, and employers working on the practicum part of apprenticeships. The reason they thrive historically in Germany has a lot to do with the interdependence between firms, unions, and educational institutions and the “Lander” or regional government. We should be very skeptical that we can transplant the form to the United States without major effort at research and development.
Doing this right at the national level is not going to cost $200 million. If we take the estimates on the government costs from the 2012 study, it might be on average $1,000 per apprentice. For an apprenticeship system as big as, say, the community college system, we would need $170 million dollars just for Ohio. What happens if we really want to take on the problem and we give $1,000 per apprentice to a state the size of Texas or even California? Costs will vary among programs, so the real costs will be much greater. Clearly, President Trump will need to increase the overall budget for apprenticeships, as will states, if we really want to make a dent in the demand for skilled trades in the nation.
The nation would do well to take education for careers more seriously than it has in the past. The apprenticeship system is a major part of this potential source of training. However, taking it seriously requires dealing with a whole host of fiscal, educational, and social issues. I hope the states, including Ohio, are up for it.
Joshua D. Hawley is Associate Professor in the Glenn College and an Associate Professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University.