Apprenticeship Is Back—And It’s About Time
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
It’s the hot new way to get ahead, but many parents and educators aren’t promoting it.
Most Americans agree that apprenticeships—or "earn while learning" career opportunities—make people more employable than going to college, according to the results of the latest American Staffing Association Workforce Monitor survey. Additionally, a New America study reports that 83% of Americans are in favor of increased government funding to support apprenticeship—about the same percentage of Americans that admire scientists and firefighters.
In recent years, both political parties have championed the apprenticeship model. The Obama administration set aside a record $175 million for the federal grant program for apprenticeships. And President Trump signed an executive order to double government funds for apprenticeship programs, followed only a year later by another executive order to establish apprenticeship programs with U.S. companies, affecting some 3.8 million workers. All to say, apprenticeship is making a comeback—and it’s about time.
That was then, this is now
Once upon a time, apprenticeship involved a young person being indentured to work under an established tradesman, thereby learning the trade. Today, it’s so much more. According to the U.S. Department of Labor and Apprenticeship.gov, “Apprenticeship is an industry-driven, high-quality career pathway where employers can develop and prepare their future workforce, and individuals can obtain paid work experience, classroom instruction, and a portable, nationally recognized credential.”
Moreover, public perception about apprenticeship is changing dramatically. According to the ASA survey, roughly seven in 10 adults in the U.S. say that learning a specific trade is better for finding a job than a bachelor’s degree (68%) and that college degrees aren’t worth as much as they used to be (69%). Meanwhile, the vast majority disagree that completing an apprenticeship will limit one’s future employment options (71%) and that earn-while-learning programs generally lead to a lower salary than occupations requiring a college degree (60%).
Also, as the apprenticeship model expands to include a wider range of career pathways, both structured coaching relationships and mentorships are becoming more prevalent in corporate businesses. And while such relationships may not be as formal as some apprenticeship models, they capture the essence of apprenticeship: an experienced worker passes on their knowledge, skills and expertise to a worker new to the field.
Finally, companies that invest in apprenticeship programs stand to reap the immense advantage of a carefully trained, highly skilled workforce that can deliver in ever-evolving, ever-demanding business environments. They’re also building employee trust and loyalty in a world where 43% of Millennial workers and 61% of Generation-Z workers plan to leave their jobs within two years.
Apprenticeship is ideal for younger generations
Given the choice, most people prefer to learn not just by seeing and hearing, but also by actively doing. This is especially true of the Why Generation—Millennials and Gen-Z—both of whom fervently believe that “experience is everything.” The learning-by-doing format of apprenticeship plays to their preferences and also engages them at a much deeper level than lecture-driven training methods.
But learning by doing isn’t new. Benjamin Franklin, who at one time was an apprentice to his brother in the printing trade, is quoted as saying, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Workers that don’t just learn about their field, but actually experience it via apprenticeship, are markedly better equipped to succeed. Not to mention that they usually accomplish their training at a fraction of the cost of most other postsecondary training pathways.
Good news—and bad news
While the ASA survey proves that popular opinion is shifting in favor of apprenticeships, significant challenges still exist in making them mainstream. The notion that “people will look down on you” if you choose apprenticeship over other postsecondary pathways isn’t uniquely American; it’s an international perception. According a survey by U.K. firm ILM, over 50% of middle and senior managers would be unwilling to be seen as apprentices—a number that leaps to 73% in smaller businesses.
To be sure, positive trends in legislation, funding and employer-driven programs are encouraging signs. But until parents, educators, guidance counselors and other influencers actively promote apprenticeship, most young people won’t consider it an option, let alone opt in.
So let’s all consider that a call to action. Apprenticeship is back, baby—and it’s about time.