Can apprenticeships transform higher education?

Apprenticeships could fill the need for jobs that require training without a four-year degree.

apprenticeships-higher-educationA new report released by the American Council on Education examines the rebirth of apprenticeship and its renewed relevance within today’s higher education landscape.

The paper, titled “Revisiting Apprenticeships,” is the first in a series of eight ACE “Quick Hits,” which are funded by the Lumina Foundation and focused on current and emerging topics in higher education innovation and attainment.

An ancient concept based on a person learning a trade from a skilled employer while simultaneously helping the employer with their own productivity, apprenticeship has long been viewed as a way to advance skills sets. Today, this tradition continues as apprenticeship has become a hot topic for both employers and academic institutions.

Early in 2015, the Obama Administration announced a $100 million program to support new apprenticeship programs, with particular emphasis on creating opportunities in nontraditional, high-demand occupations. In his budget, President Obama also called for $2 billion over the next 5 years to double the number of apprentices in the United States as part of an increasing focus on “job-driven” training in the administration.

Similarly, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have reached across the political aisle to jointly introduce a measure that would give businesses that sponsor apprentices a $1,000 tax credit.

(Next Page: The spread of apprenticeships and how institutions are responding)

The U.S. lags compared to other countries

There are many important jobs that require some postsecondary training without the need for acquiring a four-year college degree. However, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University has predicted a shortage of 3 million workers with associate degrees or higher by 2022, and that the nation will need some 5 million workers with technical certification and credentials to fill high-demand occupations.

Many are beginning to think that apprenticeships can help bridge that gap. But how accepting are different institutions of apprenticeships?

Since 2007, the number of employers sponsoring apprenticeships in South Carolina has grown from 90 to 700, according to a report from Sarah Ayres Steinberg, a policy analyst on the economic policy team at the Center for American Progress. Other states making large strides to invest in apprenticeship programs are Maryland, Iowa, and Vermont.

Yet, apprenticeship in the United States is still small compared to other major economies, notes the report. In 2011, there were 388,000 apprentices in the United States, which is dwarfed by the 1 million apprentices that include occupations generally viewed as “white collar” in the U.K.

“Apprenticeships are dramatically underutilized in this country, and if we expand our apprenticeship system, it is a good way to help businesses meet the demand for skilled labor that labor economists have said is a concern that we should be worried about over the next 10 years,” Steinberg said.

The power of community colleges

Where apprenticeships are most gaining steam in the United States, however, are among community colleges. Some community colleges are partnering with businesses to fill jobs that may not require a full four-year degree while helping students attain new experience and credentials. For example, Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College has an initiative that enables apprentices in trade programs to obtain associate degrees or technical certificates using the credits they earned for time spent on the job.

This April, the Department of Education partnered with the Department of Labor in order to launch the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium, one goal of which is to help graduates of Registered Apprenticeship programs convert on-the-job and classroom training into college credits toward an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Evaluating programs is critical

ACE is actually one of the third-party organizations that evaluates apprenticeship programs to determine their worth in college credits. Apprentices can then have that credit apply toward an associate or bachelor’s degree at any of the institutions in the consortium. This crediting systems aims to help many who are unlikely to enter degree programs until later in life; therefore, learning achieved in an apprenticeship program will give them a head start on pursuing further postsecondary education down the line.

Though it seems unlikely that four-year institutions will fully embrace apprenticeship, the report suggests that it would be beneficial for four-year institutions to make greater efforts to partner with employers (many of whom would do well to reach out to schools more as well) in order to determine the most needed skills and develop curricula to meet the demands of the workforce.

“Our current system of education and training is not sufficient to meet the demands for skilled labor,” Steinberg said. “We have to do something different. We have to make it easier for young people to get the postsecondary education and training that they need. And I think what that means is not focusing as much as we have on ‘everyone needs a bachelor’s degree,’ but on open access to alternatives forms of education and training after high school.”

For more on ACE’s report including a video summary, click here.

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