This is the Dawning of the Age of Apprenticeship

Crises of college completion, affordability, and employability mean the U.S. must establish faster and cheaper alternatives to college, Ryan Craig, managing director at Achieve Partners, writes. The #1 alternative? Apprenticeships.

If you’re looking for proof that everything old is new again, look no further than the widely circulated list of guidelines from the 1918 influenza pandemic. Many of the directives from a century ago—wear a mask, wash your hands—sound very familiar today (as, it should be said, does resistance to those directives).

But public health best practices aren’t the only historical idea due for a revival. As the country navigates a rocky road back from Covid, policymakers and employers alike are turning to one of human society’s oldest tools for economic development: apprenticeships.

While the concept of “learning while earning” is slightly younger than either learning or earning, it dates back to the Middle Ages when craftsmen would train young people in a specific trade. Back then and in the present day, the benefits to learner and employer alike are clear: for the former, it’s paid on-the-job training that leads to a career; for the latter, it’s an in-house talent pipeline that can spare businesses from high recruiting costs and result in better employees and less churn. 

Though the model has yet to take off in the U.S. outside of the building and industrial trades, plenty of ink has been spilled about the impact of apprenticeships in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden. Every year we send junkets of elected and appointed officials over to these countries to drink riesling, eat schnitzel, and learn about these countries’ magical apprenticeship models.

But the urgency for apprenticeships has now exceeded riesling and schnitzel levels. Simultaneous crises of college completion, affordability, and employability make it imperative that America establishes faster + cheaper alternatives to college. And apprenticeships are the #1 alternative.

Here are three reasons that American apprenticeships are poised for a long-awaited breakthrough.

New federal investment

Workforce development has long been a bright spot for bipartisanship and apprenticeships are one of the few policies to see investment from both the Trump and Biden administrations. While the two have taken different approaches—the former focused on increasing the role of industry, the latter prioritizing the role of unions—it’s clear that both sides of the aisle recognize the potential of earn-and-learn programs to help the country speed up its economic recovery. 

Additional funding over the past decade has helped accelerate the growth of apprenticeships: 64 percent growth from 2010, although the vast majority in the apprenticeship comfort zone of building and industrial trades. And new federal investment is on the horizon. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $48 billion for workforce development programs, including the creation of “one to two million new registered apprenticeships.” 

Rise of next-gen apprenticeships

Registered apprenticeships aren’t the only model that’s taking root across the country. Consider programs like the one operated by Optimum Healthcare IT, a healthcare IT solutions firm that recently launched Optimum Career Path, an apprenticeship program to hire, train, and place specialized new healthcare IT talent in hospitals for functions like configuring and integrating electronic medical records platforms. Epic, the market leader in electronic medical records, has approximately 50,000 unfilled jobs. Yet not a single college or university in the U.S. is providing training on the Epic platform.

Another next-gen apprenticeship is Talent Path, which hires, trains, and places new software developers and data analysts at Fortune 500 companies. There’s also Freedom Learning Group, which trains veterans and military spouses to become courseware developers and instructional designers—critical in an era of remote learning.

None of these programs are registered with the federal government. But they do have the key elements of apprenticeship, namely hiring unproven talent from day one, providing them with immersive, on-the-job learning on specific technical skills, and giving their clients an opportunity to try new talent before making a hiring decision. Next-gen apprenticeships organized by intermediaries like Optimum, Talent Path, and Freedom Learning Group are likely to increase as a growing number of businesses tire of the war for talent and decide to create their own future workforce—for themselves, and for their clients.

What’s the alternative?

If you’re skeptical that we’re at the dawning of the age of apprenticeship, consider the alternative. You’d have to believe that America’s colleges and universities suddenly take an interest in cannibalizing lucrative degree programs with their own faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs. You’d also have to believe they have the capability to establish much stronger connections with employers on curriculum development and placement.

Since no one has ever gone broke betting against the pace of change in higher education, it’s a safe bet none of these things will happen nearly fast enough. For far too many students, college degrees are an expensive gamble that—particularly at non-selective institutions—leaves students short of a valuable credential and/or ill-prepared for the world of work. If that’s not enough motivation to try something different, what is?

Covid will only make this shift happen faster. A growing number of employers need specific technical skills that colleges won’t provide. A growing number of aspiring workers demand new pathways to economic opportunity. Apprenticeships solve both problems at once. Whether they’re recognized by the federal government or not, earn-and-learn programs are poised to become a linchpin of the country’s efforts to build a better labor market in the wake of the pandemic. Medieval blacksmiths would be proud.

Ryan Craig is a managing director at Achieve Partners, which invests in new models for learning and economic advancement, including programs mentioned in this op-ed. He is the author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College and the Gap Letter, a newsletter on developments in higher education and at the intersection of education and employment.

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