Return to the Latest

An Alternative to Debt: Apprenticeships

By Reid Setzer

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama stressed the importance of young people obtaining post-secondary credentials to succeed in the modern economy. The US is projected to have a deficit of three million workers with associate’s degrees or higher by 2020.  Expanding apprenticeships is one promising and cost effective solution for closing the gap. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction to teach workers the practical and theoretical aspects of highly skilled occupations.Unfortunately, there are only 358,000 active registered apprentices in the United States, and few people know they exist.

Students unsure about their next step after high school ought to take a look at apprenticeships. They offer some post-secondary training that will result in an essential industry certificate at minimum, a 2-year degree in many cases, and 4-year degrees in others. Apprentices simultaneously earn credentials and a paycheck. In an era of skyrocketing tuition and student debt, apprenticeships are an enticing alternative to the traditional college route. Students not only get accredited degrees, but are employed upon completion with no educational debt. Yes, you heard that right: employed with no debt. It is amazing that so few people know about them.

Fortunately, groups across the country are working to change that, and I had the opportunity to visit with one a few months ago. The American Apprenticeship Round Table (AART), founded in 1943, is comprised of companies committed to extending apprenticeship opportunities to young people. The AART meets to discuss best practices within the apprenticeship sphere. For example, representatives from precision manufacturers in Pittsburgh, chemical companies in Texas and other manufactures from across the country shared the relative sizes of their apprenticeship classes (anywhere from 3 to 200+), their thorough application process and how they partner with local community colleges to supply the classroom-based instruction apprentices need.

One organization stands out as an innovative model of what a 21st century apprenticeship can look like: The Apprentice School. Founded in 1919, the modern incarnation of the Apprentice School mimics a traditional campus experience in a shipyard setting. Funded by Northrup Grumman, the School has on-campus groups, athletic teams, a graduation ceremony, and just opened up a new 90,000 square foot school building complete with classrooms, labs and a gym. The curriculum combines traditional apprenticeships in fields like electrical work, machinery and welding, with some advanced programs like nuclear test technical work and advanced shipyard operations. The school also facilitates advancement for those who complete their apprenticeships: 44 percent of the current production management team were apprentices. Out of the last 9,800 students who completed apprenticeships, approximately 3,000 are still with the company. In response to its success developing this new model, the Apprentice School was recognized as a 21st Century Registered Apprenticeship Trailblazer and Innovator by the Department of Labor in 2013.

Apprenticeship programs are gaining more and more attention across the country as reports of their success spread throughout news media.  A 2012 DOL study found that those who participate in Registered Apprenticeships make over $300,000 more than those who do not over their lifetimes, including employer benefits. The study also showed that those who merely participate in Registered Apprenticeships and do not complete them earn over $123,000 more over a 36-year career than those that never participate. The issue has started to get policymakers in Washington’s attention, as evidenced by new reports and statements promoting apprenticeship programs by the president and Republican leaders alike. Expanding apprenticeship programs will help young people acquire the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.