Filling the Gap: Why America Needs More Company Buy-In to Build its Apprenticeship Model

Written by: Erin Robinson

In September, I attended an informational event about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in the U.S. When I asked what was needed when it comes to STEM education, a panelist responded that the government must incentivize the business community to give students relevant and rigorous opportunities. Students need the opportunity to deeply engage in STEM fields and gain skills for careers which would provide them a comfortable living wage. Apprenticeship programs fit this mold, but the model in the United States is severely underdeveloped and lacks the company interest to revolutionize the way we train future workers.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that by 2018, there will be a shortage of U.S. workers with recognized postsecondary credentials, including 4,700,000 workers with certificates. Apprenticeship programs can fill this gap by combining on the job training and related instruction. Apprenticeships bring benefits such as increased wages, improved skills, increased retention and greater productivity.  Forty-five percent of all jobs over the next decade will be “middle skills” jobs, positions which require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. Many of these middle skills jobs require STEM capabilities. Unfortunately, Job creation by employers for middle skilled workers likely depends partly on their perceived costs of finding and generating workers. Currently U.S. employers are likely to offshore or outsource this work instead of funneling resources into an apprenticeship program.

Those opposed to creating a solid apprenticeship model in the United States often make price the principle reason. Though apprenticeship programs do require significant investment of resources, there are both federal workforce and education funds available to offset some costs and the return on investment is quite large. Apprentices who qualify for Pell grants can use those funds and higher education institutions can also use Federal Work Study (FWS) funds for wages as well as to support employers in creating programs. Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds can be used for training and tuition costs, coverage for supervision, and additional recruiting, placement and support services.  A 2012 evaluation of registered apprenticeship programs by Mathematica Policy Research showed a tax return of $27 for every $1 the federal government invested in registered apprenticeship programs and a total benefit of $35 per dollar invested.

The topic of youth apprenticeships is also a contentious issue because opponents say encouraging students to pursue apprenticeships discourages them from pursuing a college education, making apprenticeships unattractive to employers with degree requirements.  Not all apprenticeships are divorced from community colleges and universities, however. The Employment and Training Administration under the U.S. Department of Labor oversees the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium (RACC).  RACC is a group of employers, labor management groups and associations that have apprenticeship programs. The consortium includes both two and four year postsecondary institutions that accept credit from the apprenticeship towards the completion of a degree or certificate program.

The business community must get more involved in the creation and sustaining of apprenticeship programs, but may need greater incentives to do so. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) hoped to incentivize businesses to get on board with the Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs (LEAP) Act, which they introduced in 2015. The LEAP Act would offer a federal tax credit for businesses that hire new apprentices registered under the Department of Labor and would encourage hiring apprentices under the age of 25. Apprenticeships, especially those in STEM fields, fill a growing need in the American labor force. They give companies an opportunity to shape their workforce to fit their exact needs while providing real, usable skills to those leaving high school and beyond.