5 min read

In the face of dissatisfaction with the traditional college-to-workplace pipeline, apprenticeship programs are providing another avenue to workplace success.

As schools and universities grapple with preparing young Americans for the world of work, American employers struggle to find enough workers to fill jobs they have available. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in May 2024 the U.S. labor market had 8.5 million job openings and 6.5 million unemployed people, which is about 1.3 jobs for every unemployed person. 

A great deal of ink has been spilled and dollars spent trying to bridge this disconnect between worker supply and demand. Much of that effort assumes that the traditional pipeline from high school to a two- or four-year college to the workforce or some variation on this approach is the only, or best, way forward. But many Americans, including employers and young people, are questioning whether a college degree is the best pathway to a good job and adult success.

They want other education and training pathways that prepare individuals for employment and adult success. These new avenues include apprenticeships, which typically integrate paid, on-the-job training with formal classroom instruction. These “learn and earn” pathways offer an alternative to the traditional college campus experience by creating a school and workplace campus experience.

These new apprenticeship pathways are just beginning to take shape. Early returns are very promising. This means it is an area ripe for philanthropic impact. Individual donors and foundations wanting to create more pathways to opportunity for individuals in their communities should consider funding apprenticeship programs. In doing so, they foster opportunity pluralism.


The Demand for Apprenticeships

Americans want an alternative to the traditional college degree employment pathway. For example, two Harris polls sponsored by the American Staffing Association found that more than 9 out of 10 (92%) Americans view apprenticeships favorably. More than 6 out of 10 (62%) say they make people more employable than going to college does.

Gen Z high schoolers agree. A poll sponsored by the nonprofit Educational Credit Management Corporation reports that half (51%) of today’s high schoolers are considering a college degree—a drop of more than ten percentage points from before the pandemic. More than 6 out of 10 (65%) say learning after high school should be done on the job through internships or apprenticeships.

Evidence from the labor market suggests this appetite reflects a changing reality. 45% of college graduates are underemployed ten years after graduating in jobs not requiring a degree, according to a study by Burning Glass Institute and Strada Education Network. Many employers are eliminating the college degree as the gatekeeper credential for jobs, shifting from degree-based to skills-based hiring.

That makes apprenticeship programs particularly promising. These programs come in different forms. Registered apprenticeship programs offer paid work experience, wage increases, participation in classroom instruction, and a nationally recognized credential upon completing the program. They differ from internships, which are generally short-term, entry-level, unpaid jobs that do not lead to an industry credential. Today, around 90% of apprentices who complete a registered apprenticeship retain employment, with an average annual salary of $80,000.

The United States lags far behind the rest of the world in apprenticeship programs, however. Currently, 27,000 registered programs enroll around 594,000 individuals with an average age of 29, with roughly 70% of these apprenticeships in construction trades. That is only 0.3% of the workforce, placing the U.S. at the bottom of apprenticeship enrollment among developed countries. That number needs to grow.


A New Frontier for Apprenticeships

Youth apprenticeships are a newer form of apprenticeships with no federal definition. Unlike registered apprenticeship programs, youth apprenticeships are often unpaid. Additionally, youth apprenticeships include work-based learning with classroom instruction, though instruction typically involves dual enrollment across high schools and postsecondary institutions. Finally, youth apprenticeships predominate in fields like advanced manufacturing, information technology, and logistics—a far broader range of fields than the adult apprenticeship focus on construction trades. The digital news hub Work Shift dubs these “new collar apprenticeships.”

report from New America identifies five types of youth apprenticeship programs: state-level programs, registered (federal apprenticeship) programs, public and private partnerships, high school pathways programs, and experimental pilot programs. All typically include some combination of school, employer, and post-secondary institutional partnerships, often coordinated by an organization called an apprenticeship intermediary. Another New America report documents how these go-between organizations use technology to strengthen and expand apprenticeship programs.

All signs point to these programs continuing to grow. For example, youth apprenticeship programs have bipartisan backing across states as diverse politically as CaliforniaColoradoNew YorkOhioTennessee, and Texas. The U.S. Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration is launching a first-ever Federal Youth Apprentice Pathway pilot program to model how federal agencies can partner with organizations to create career pathways to federal jobs. Finally, the U.S. Congress is considering several bipartisan apprenticeship bills, including a first-ever Youth Apprenticeship Advancement Act—a grant program to expand youth apprenticeships for school districts and employers.

Youth apprenticeships can be integrated into at least two other current education initiatives: career education and apprenticeship degrees. The former is a foundation for participating in a successful apprenticeship. The latter gives apprenticeships a specific direction. Career education should aim to prepare individuals for apprenticeships and begin early in a child’s school experience, gradually familiarizing students with workplace exposure, exploration, and experience. Such approaches help young people develop knowledge and skills, social and professional networks, and the capacity to navigate pathways that turn ambitions into reality.

While career education programs expand opportunity by preparing students for successful participation in and completion of apprenticeships, apprenticeship degrees expand opportunity on the tail end. They show that apprenticeships do not need to conflict with pursuing a higher education degree. They can be part of dual education programs that allow individuals to be apprentices and attend college. For example, the United Kingdom has developed an apprenticeship degree, an earn-and-learn program that takes three to six years and leads to a debt-free bachelor’s or master’s degree.

This degree-granting model is being adopted in U.S. K-12 education to create debt-free teacher apprenticeships that award bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education support 37 states and territories that offer these programs, up from only two states in 2022. Over 100 K-12 registered apprenticeship teacher programs exist, and over 3,000 teacher apprenticeships have been trained. Organizations like RTI International, the National Center to Grow Your Own, and The Pathways Alliance have been created to support this implementation effort.    Combining apprenticeships with higher education allows colleges to "unbundle" the four-year degree into building blocks, or stackable credentials, earned while working and leading to new types of associate or bachelor’s degrees.


A Way Forward for Donors

As donors consider whether and how to support apprenticeship programs, here are four topic areas worthy of careful consideration. The list begins with deciding what program your community needs, the partners who will support that program, what financial and other types of assistance are needed, and how to monitor what you are achieving. 

  1. Program type: What apprenticeship programs exist in your community? Are they registered or non-registered programs? To what participants are they directed—e.g., young people in high school, adults who are being retrained? In what occupations are apprenticeships offered—e.g., construction trades, advanced manufacturing, digital technologies, medical technicians?
  2. Program partners: What organizations and individuals are involved in creating and supporting these programs? Are there K-12 schools, employers, community colleges, community organizations, four-year colleges, community leaders? What formal partnerships exist?
  3. Program organization. How are programs funded? What is the mix of local, state, federal, employer and philanthropic dollars? What career education framework structures the overall program? Are internships or high school course credits part of the program? Is dual enrollment between high schools and colleges available?
  4. Program results: What credentials or certificates are awarded to those who complete apprenticeships? What are program completion rates and starting salaries? Are employers satisfied with their new employees?


Opportunity Pluralism Lies Ahead

Americans want K-12 schools, colleges, employers, and other stakeholders to think differently about success—and creatively about attaining it. This creative thinking will take hard work, and philanthropic investment. Ideally, donors and foundations will work towards opportunity pluralism, where many pathways lead to good jobs and human flourishing. This apprenticeship approach makes the nation's opportunity structure more pluralistic. It differs from the old vocational education that placed students into different tracks based chiefly on family background. Apprenticeships open doors rather than constraining individuals’ choices.

Apprenticeship programs are built on an opportunity equation that includes what individuals know—knowledge—and whom they know—relationships. They build profitable knowledge and priceless relationships. Amid the current dissatisfaction with K-12 and higher education and the disconnect between worker supply and employer demand, donors should recognize that apprenticeship models have the potential to make the workplace the new learning campus.

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