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Apprenticeships are commonly identified with skilled trades such as welding and carpentry, but new research indicates that expanding apprenticeships into other occupations would lead to more job opportunities.

Researchers from Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future Work Project and Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analytics company, found that the number of occupations that commonly use apprenticeships could be expanded -- from 27 to 74.

That increase alone would open up to 3.3 million job opportunities that could be filled by apprentices, according to the researchers’ report. The 27 occupations that currently use apprenticeship models account for approximately 410,000 apprentices.

“We are underutilizing apprenticeships as an education and training model, and it could be much more widely spread,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills with the education policy program at New America and a former official at the U.S. Education and Labor Departments. “[The researchers] even make a good case that it’s not even being used enough in the skilled trades and occupations related to skilled trades.”

Apprenticeships have bipartisan support in Congress and are popular with the Trump administration. President Trump signed an executive order earlier this year to expand the federal apprenticeship program to more industry groups and alternative education providers.

The researchers examined more than 23 million job postings to identify occupations with similar characteristics to existing apprenticeships.

They then identified two categories of occupations apprenticeships could expand to -- expander roles and booster roles. Expander roles are occupations that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, for example, tax preparers or customer service representatives, while booster roles are jobs where employers have often requested a bachelor’s degree, even though the skills required for the job don’t necessitate a college degree. Those occupations include claims adjusters, human resource specialists and graphic designers.

The shift to expanding apprenticeships to more occupations like the ones suggested by the researchers could have an impact on degree inflation.

“We think there is so much potential for apprenticeships to challenge the very real and rampant problem of degree inflation,” said Matt Sigelman, chief executive officer of Burning Glass and a co-author of the report. “Employers are using the [four-year] college degree as a proxy for job readiness, and I think that’s the promise of apprenticeships. There could be more effective and tailor-made avenues to delivering workers who are job ready.”

Sigelman said the researchers aren’t suggesting people shouldn’t go to college, but that many of the occupations they identified may require a sub-baccalaureate degree or certification that can be achieved while gaining experience in an apprenticeship.

Degree inflation has led to a shift in what is considered “middle-skilled” jobs. Those occupations that were once considered middle skill are now the jobs worked by graduates with bachelor’s degrees because employers ask for college degrees, Sigelman said, adding that that can actually lead to a different problem for employers.

“When they hire college graduates into middle-skills jobs, those college graduates are significantly less likely to be engaged and have shorter tenure on the job,” Sigelman said. “If you went to school to get a better job and wind up doing something you’re overqualified for, you’re not happy about it and you’re holding out for a better opportunity.”

And that’s the incentive for employers to push and support apprenticeships. Not only do they tap into pools of talented employees who are more engaged and will stay longer, but this is a group of people that may come from more diverse and low-income backgrounds, he said.

But there are still some barriers to expanding apprenticeships.

“A bachelor’s degree has currency in the market,” Sigelman said. “People know what it is. For apprenticeships to take hold and realize the full potential of our report, there’s going to need to be some strong mechanisms in place to ensure quality assurance and ensure an apprenticeship represents a certain body of defined training.”

McCarthy said for some occupations, such as graphic design, not only is it difficult to convince the higher education world that students need something other than a degree, but students and parents aren’t convinced, either.

“One thing is very clear -- if it is something that leads people away from a college degree, they are very suspicious and they want it to connect to a college degree,” she said.

So apprenticeships also present an opportunity for community colleges, four-year institutions and industry associations to work together, Sigelman said.

“It’s not just about the jobs,” McCarthy said. “When you look at it through the lens of occupation, occupation is the end of the line.”

McCarthy said the goal should be to connect apprenticeships to higher education systemically so the student employee is trained for the job and moving forward through an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree. She points to the degree apprenticeship system in the United Kingdom as an example.

There are already a number of community colleges that have partnered with companies, particularly middle-sized businesses, to offer training and education to apprentices, said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition, adding that those programs and apprenticeships don’t automatically equate to a shorter amount of time in college, since many programs run anywhere from three to five years.

“As we’re expanding into industries that have historically sought four-year degrees as the entry-level requirement for that first level of management, we’re probably going to see more four-year universities partnering with employers,” he said, adding that this already happens with executive master's of business administration programs.

The researchers also found the broadening of apprenticeships opened up more upward mobility. For example, those occupations identified as booster and expander tend to be entry level and can lead to advancement up the career ladder, more so than those in traditional apprenticeships or the rest of the job market -- 12 percent of job seekers in booster occupations and 10 percent of job seekers in expander fields, for example, reached a higher-paying role in five years, compared to 7 percent of job seekers across the market and 2 percent of those in traditional apprenticeship occupations.

But McCarthy also thinks that the 74 occupations the researchers identified could be broadened and that there are more opportunities for apprenticeships.

Sigelman agrees that while they attempted to be “grounded” in what occupations could be served by apprenticeships, he believes there’s an even broader universe of jobs that weren’t included that would benefit as well.

“There are so many more kinds of jobs the Germans, the Swiss and the British are using apprenticeships for, like cybersecurity, finance and banking positions,” McCarthy said.

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