Apprenticeship Weak: Trump proposal fails to tap into apprenticeship’s potential

Everyone loves apprenticeships (including me) as a basic model for learning work-related skills, but for the most part, policymakers don’t think very hard about why there’s so little apprenticeship in the United States. For that reason, we’re likely to continue talking about how great apprenticeship is but not making significant investments in it. President Trump’s underwhelming plan to expand apprenticeship, unveiled this past week, won’t change that. His initiative will add $100 million (less than a dollar per U.S. worker) to the budget for apprenticeship and give employers more flexibility (i.e., unilateral control without objective oversight or minimum standards) in structuring new apprenticeships but does little to address the underlying reasons why the United States lags behind our peers when it comes to apprenticeships.

The president likes apprenticeship for some of the same reasons we do. People can “learn while they earn,” without taking on debt—unlike many college graduates. In high-quality apprenticeships, with strong connections to employers and/or unions, people learn skills that are really needed on the job. In a wide range of occupations, including professions, craft and technical work, and caring occupations, a high proportion of critical skills are acquired on-the-job through learning-by-doing and informal mentoring. For that reason, apprenticeship and other models (e.g., internships, coops) that integrate classroom and workplace learning are more effective than years of classroom education followed by work without structured support for learning. Although the president didn’t point this out, apprenticeship also carries with it an implicit message of respect for the occupation—the idea that experienced workers possess significant skills and you need a proven mechanism like apprenticeship to transmit that knowledge to new initiates.

But despite apprenticeship’s appeal, it is used very little in the United States compared to other countries—and that reality hasn’t changed despite three decades of policymakers’ professed affection for the model. On a per capita basis, the United States has between 5 and 10 percent of the number of apprentices as European countries (Switzerland, England, Germany, and France). If you exclude the unionized construction industry and unionized companies across all sectors, U.S. levels of apprenticeship are tiny.

A big reason apprenticeship is small is because employers don’t want to pay for it (see the Office of Technology Assessment classic 1990 Worker Training report). In Europe and in the U.S. construction industry, unions negotiate sharing of the costs across employers in an industry. (In U.S. construction, apprenticeship funding is deducted from an amount agreed upon for total hourly compensation, so the contributions come out of workers’ pay.) In addition, European apprenticeship is integrated with secondary and post-secondary education, bringing with it significant public subsidy and higher status.

Trump’s plan doesn’t wrestle with the underlying reasons apprenticeship is scarce in the United States. His emphasis on “flexibility” implies that the federal and state process for registering apprenticeship is a barrier to its more widespread adoption. In fact, the current regulations give those establishing new programs wide latitude to customize curricula and standards. In addition, federal and state authorities are happy to hold the hand of applicants registering new apprenticeships. The current oversight does try to ensure that apprenticeships teach new workers skills and that programs align classroom and workplace learning/mentoring. It also seeks to ensure a reasonable ratio of experienced workers to apprentices. Without these protections, apprenticeship can become just another way to pay workers less, with first-year apprentices taking home only 60–80 percent of experienced workers’ wages.

Trump’s emphasis on flexibility for employers is also silent on that other stakeholder that is at the heart of effective apprenticeship—workers, the people who possess the skills that new apprentices need to learn. What about strengthening workers’ voice as part of diffusing apprenticeship more widely? OK, sorry I asked.

Trump’s plan to invest $100 million more in apprenticeship goes along with proposed cuts of $2.5 billion in his U.S. Department of Labor budget, over half of it from workforce programs; and additional cuts in workforce related programs within the Department of Education, including $168 million for grants to state career and technical education programs. On net, therefore, his budget proposes very large cuts in public investment in career pipelines that could link with apprenticeship.

The president’s new initiative may let him spread an additional $100 million to the National Retail Federation or other associations of (mostly) low-road employers unwilling to invest significantly in their workers’ training or pay them good wages. But it doesn’t include a significant increase in career and educational investment aligned with apprenticeship, or a plan to grow unions across the economy, or some other mechanism (e.g., a multi-employer tax credit) to induce more combined public-private investment. For that reason, the potential of apprenticeship in the United States to boost productivity, deliver critical skills to employers, and improve wages and career opportunities for workers will remain largely untapped.