The Changing Face of Apprenticeships

Last week was National Apprenticeship Week. Opportunity@Work has been a proponent of apprenticeships and recently released a report in collaboration with Lightcast titled The Changing Face of Apprenticeships.

Opportunity@Work is an independent 501(c)(3) that “develops and tests platforms to provide tech-enabled solutions to solve the opportunity gap and rallies public, private, and non-profit partners to rewire the labor market so that everyone can contribute their skills, talent, and energy in pursuit of a better life.” The group promotes the term STARS* coined for people who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes rather than a bachelor’s degree. Boldly, the group states on its website that “we envision a future in which employers hire people based on their skills rather than their pedigree. In that future, STARs can achieve upward economic mobility, and companies have access to the skilled and diverse talent they need to fill millions of open jobs.”

The subtitle for the report on apprenticeships is “new opportunities for employers and STARs.” The  introduction notes that apprenticeships remain underutilized in the United States compared to other countries. The authors appear to ignore the reasons why apprenticeships in the U.S. are woefully underutilized, but Jeff Selingo’s 2017 opinion piece in the Washington Post points to the number one reason as cultural. Mr. Selingo wrote “the ‘college-for-all’ movement in the United States over the last four decades has pushed many youths to campuses even when they weren’t ready or didn’t want to follow that well-trod pathway.” He also noted that apprenticeships in the U.S. are associated with construction trades and labor unions and a Depression-era labor shortage that led Congress to pass formalized standards and empowered the Labor Department to certify training. Mr. Selingo didn’t write that the regulatory environment was the second reason, but I will.

Mr. Selingo’s 2017 op-ed compared the 500,000 workers enrolled in apprentice programs to the 2 million students enrolled in community colleges. Opportunity@Work provides a starker contrast by comparing the 2021 600,000 workers enrolled in apprenticeship programs to the 11 million full-time students enrolled in four-year colleges. When you’re on a mission to remove a four-year degree as a requirement for many open positions as Opportunity@Work is, you demonstrate a steeper mountain to climb.

Opportunity@Work also attempts to remove the regulatory roadblocks for apprenticeships by including “informal” apprenticeships as part of their demonstration that apprenticeships can better meet labor market requirements than four-year degrees. The informal apprenticeships have been identified by proprietary data from Lightcast analyzing employer job postings using the words “apprentice,” “apprenticeship,” “in-training,” or “trainee.” Using that proprietary data, they estimate that 475 roles (more than half the occupations in the labor market) have registered or informal apprenticeship programs. Registered apprenticeships have increased into more than 100 roles since 2010.

The report provides three major insights. Insight #1 – Employers Are Expanding Apprenticeships into New Roles begins by acknowledging that traditional apprenticeships focus on the trades (author’s note – and trade unions per Department of Labor regulations). The bulk of the increase in apprenticeships since 2010 have been initiated by employers. Figure 1.1 of the report provides an interesting graphic that includes differentiation between registered apprenticeships (traditional and new) and informal apprenticeships by key occupation. The report’s authors criticize management occupations for not offering apprenticeship programs without an underlying analysis as to whether those specific occupations required experience.

Insight #2 – New Apprenticeships Expand and Diversity Talent Pipelines provides information that should be obvious to those who are familiar with college graduation rates. African American and Hispanic populations have lower college graduation rates and comprise a higher percentage of the STAR population than the college-educated population. For that reason, the talent pipeline through STARs is more diverse.

Insight #3 – Employers Are Using Apprenticeships Strategically provides three opportunities for future apprenticeship growth. Opportunity 1 relates to employers leveraging apprenticeships to supply talent to high-volume roles. In 2021, the 25 occupations with the greatest hiring demand all had apprenticeship programs. Opportunity 2 applies to employers’ usage of apprenticeships to teach unique industry- and employer-specific skills. On-the-job training offered in an apprenticeship allows computer programmers and software developers to learn company-specific technology faster than they could learn it in schools. Opportunity 3 applies to jobs that are new to the labor market. Specifically, jobs that depend on new and evolving technologies can have a small supply of candidates because of the lack of people with relevant experience.

The report concludes with a call to action to leverage the apprenticeship model to strengthen talent pipelines. One example where apprenticeships can make a difference is software developer. According to the report, of the 132,000 entry-level software developer job postings, more than half (71,000) required a bachelor’s degree. Only 29,000 recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees were hired into this role leaving 42,000 unfilled positions. Opportunity@Work writes that 10,000 STARs transition into software developer roles annually from computer support positions. If STARs can do this on their own, the authors surmise that many more can do it through formal apprenticeship programs.

There are parts of The Changing Face of Apprenticeships report that I like and that I dislike. I like the promotion of apprenticeships. Like Mr. Selingo, I believe that America’s “everyone should go to college” culture of the past 40 years has been wrong. Apprenticeships and increasing vocational technology education in our high schools can change that. At the same time, I disagree with Opportunity@Work that employers should strive to eliminate all requirements for a four-year degree. I don’t claim to know what the right balance should be, but as a former executive, I am positive that there are positions where a person with a four-year degree can achieve expectations quicker than someone whose critical thinking and analytical skills are weak because of less education and training. Training is expensive, whether it’s a six-month apprenticeship or a four-year apprenticeship. Moving away from a minimal training expectation to a more substantial training expectation will be difficult and expensive, and many employers in the private sector consider training expenses as part of the equation for the return on investment for a new hire.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence