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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Apprenticeships fail to launch in the U.S.

Ninety-two percent of Americans like the idea of apprenticeships, according to a recent American Staffing Association survey, and 62 percent say apprenticeships make people more employable than going to college.

Two-thirds of high school students say they want to learn on the job, through internships or apprenticeships or via or hands-on learning in a lab or classroom.

But apprenticeships have failed to launch in the U.S., says Ryan Craig of Achieve Partners, author of Apprentice Nation. In a conversation with Class Disrupted's Michael Horn and Dianne Tavenner, he blames too little federal funding, too many federal regulations and a dearth of incentives for employers.

For every dollar of taxpayer support a U.S. apprentice receives, a college student gets $50, he says.

The Department of Labor isn't funding intermediaries, such as staffing agencies, who can convince employers to hire and pay inexperienced workers, says Craig. The grants go to community colleges and workforce boards, who "develop the curriculum for the formal training, the related technical instruction (RTI)." Then, they "wait for an employer to come along and say, 'Wow, if only I could find curriculum for the RTI, I’d launch my own apprenticeship program'.”

In Britain, which has greatly expanded apprenticeships, intermediaries like Multiverse go to big companies and offer to set up and run a "turnkey" apprenticeship program. They say: "All you need to do is put this apprentice on your payroll at the reduced apprentice wage." All the other costs are covered by the government.
In the U.S., Multiverse gets no government funding. They go to employers and say: "It’s going to cost you $15,000 per apprentice in program fees."

To make it worse, the Department of Labor announced new apprenticeship regulations, he says. They amount to "800 pages of new hoops that employers would have to jump through in order to register an apprenticeship program with no incentives whatsoever to do so."

Many apprenticeship programs exist only on paper, says Craig. The Department of Labor created a data base of apprenticeship programs not in the construction trades. There are 6,000 programs listed. Only 200 are real programs that are hiring people.

Demand is very high. Every time his company, Achieve Partners, hires for a tech or health-care program, "we have 100, 200, 300 applicants" for every position. That means there are few opportunities for recent high school graduates.

Tavenner asked high school interns to contact apprenticeship programs in California to see how many were hiring. They emailed 100 programs. Only 30 responded, says Tavenner, and many of the responses just redirected them to the website, which said to send an email. "When they actually talked to people, they were often told 'It says 18, but we don’t really want 18 year olds'.”

Craig would like to see career exploration and career tech education in middle schools and high schools, so students would see they have more than one path to a decent job. But they need a shot at real "learn and earn" options.

"College for all" hasn't worked well for disadvantaged students, he says. If they complete a degree in a non-technical field, they're likely to be underemployed and in debt.

"You have almost half the country who sort of sees this bright, shining digital economy, but feels like these jobs are out of reach because they’re told that they need to run the gauntlet of a four year degree, which can be five or six years in many cases, and with no guarantee of any employment outcome," he says. "And they just feel like it’s unaffordable and unrealistic and life’s going to get in the way, so why bother?"

The "radically pragmatic" Progressive Policy Institute also is a fan of apprenticeships: Here's Strengthening America's Workforce, which calls for creating four million apprenticeships, an eight-fold increase.

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