Advancing Apprenticeships

If the administration’s expanded apprenticeship program is to succeed, it must ensure a baseline of quality and rigor, alignment with industry standards, and equity in access and participation, writes Cassius O. Johnson.

June 20, 2017
 
 
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President Trump signs executive order on the Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow initiatives.

Last week, President Trump announced plans for advancing apprenticeships and work-based learning as central strategies for preparing America’s work force for the jobs of the future and addressing the skills gap. Living at the intersection of education and work force development for nearly 35 years, Jobs for the Future (JFF) agrees that the expansion of earn-and-learn strategies is a legitimate response to the demand from millions in America looking to gain a stronger foothold in the labor market. That said, the devil is in the details, so we look forward to learning more about this proposal and providing input during the upcoming rule-making process.

At first glance, the initial announcement presents opportunities to deepen collaboration among community colleges, employers, labor, work force boards and other partners in developing high-quality work-based learning programs that prepare workers for the 21st-century economy. Community colleges should play a vital role in apprenticeship, providing the classroom instruction that complements on-the-job training.

In fact, community colleges’ capacity to build work-based learning strategies, in close collaboration with business, has expanded tremendously in recent years, in part due to support from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT grant program and other public backing to build college-employer partnerships. These programs emanate from work-based learning elements such as internships and clinical practicums that are embedded in many community college certificate and degree programs.

The Apprenticeships of Today and Tomorrow

As noted last week by Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, registered apprenticeship programs have resulted in jobs paying an average of $60,000 per year. Apprenticeships continue to grow in a host of occupations, including traditional sectors such as construction, and are increasing in new ones such as IT, health care and finance. In such programs, students are hired as full-time workers, trained through a combination of hands-on and classroom training, and paid a full-time wage during the period of apprenticeship. That makes apprenticeship an attractive option for millions of middle- and low-income individuals who must work while seeking to build skills, knowledge and a career.

The Trump plan, however, also seeks to establish “Industry-recognized apprenticeships … that promote the development of apprenticeship programs by third parties … [that] may include trade and industry groups, companies, nonprofit organizations, unions, and joint labor-management organizations.” If apprenticeships of the future are to succeed, JFF strongly encourages the administration to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As apprenticeships continue to capture the interest of policy makers, employers and career seekers, we acknowledge the registration process should be streamlined to expand development of and access to apprenticeships. However, we also urge that the apprenticeship standards be maintained in order to ensure a high baseline of quality, rigor and protections for apprentices, and not confuse or weaken this effective training model.

Specifically, JFF wants to ensure that equal opportunity and diversity continue to be a part of any work-based learning opportunity so that it’s truly a pipeline for all workers. Furthermore, all top-notch apprenticeship offerings should include a portable credential in case a worker wants or needs to work for another employer down the road, so his or her qualifications are intact.

Registered apprenticeships also ensure: alignment with industry standards, the aforementioned equity in access and participation, and the use of data for determining quality -- akin to accreditation for higher education programs. This is why an apprenticeship that is registered is often referred to as the “gold standard” of training programs. Registration sets high industry standards similar to the much-lauded models in Switzerland and Germany, and it validates an apprentice’s knowledge, skills and abilities wherever they go in that industry.

Start Students Before College

Currently, many workers access work-based learning in college and the workplace. But JFF wants to expand opportunities for young people to engage in high-quality career-focused learning earlier in their lives. We must ensure that our education systems -- K-12 as well as higher education -- provide students with a continuum of career awareness, information and exploration opportunities, as well as work-based learning experiences. When young people participate in such real-world experiences -- including pre-apprenticeships, internships, capstone projects and service learning -- not only do they transition into postsecondary education with a clearer idea of the careers and relevant programs of study they want to pursue, but they also have higher rates of college completion.

Registered apprenticeships and strong work-based learning initiatives in general are urgently needed for both youths and adults, who greatly benefit when work is combined with classroom training. We look forward to collaborating with the administration and Congress to ensure the quality and rigor of these programs and to expand and adequately fund all highly effective strategies for preparing America’s work force for the future, including those effectively in place as part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act.

With nearly seven million Americans who remain out of work and over 30 million who are without a high school diploma or its equivalent, we must employ the full range of evidence-based work force and education strategies to help all Americans get the skills they need to find family-supporting careers. This is imperative as the U.S. gap between the skills employers need and those workers have continues to grow. Community colleges and other postsecondary institutions, working with industry and other partners, can play crucial roles in the expansion of these successful initiatives.

Bio

Cassius O. Johnson is vice president of organizational strategy and policy at Jobs for the Future.

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