Apprenticeship Programs Expand With Help of Community Colleges

By Jennifer Gonzalez
Reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education

The apprenticeship system, long considered an educational relic by some educators and policy makers, is gaining new attention as a promising model for improving job skills and meeting national college-completion goals.

A number of states and community and technical colleges are working to strengthen and expand apprenticeship opportunities. They offer participants a paycheck while taking courses and being trained for an occupation. Traditional trades, such as construction and manufacturing, continue to draw the most students, but newer industries, such as travel, health care, and information technology, have also begun to take part in apprenticeship programs, broadening their appeal.

Completion rates in the programs tend to be high. In a recent study by the Urban Institute, nearly two-thirds of sponsors of apprenticeship programs said that at least 70 percent of their apprentices had finished the programs. Only 36 percent of community-college students who enroll with the goal of earning a degree or certificate go on to earn one, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Completing an apprenticeship raises individuals' average earning potential by more than twice what typical community-college programs do, the Urban Institute says: more than $200,000 over a lifetime, on average, compared with no more than $90,000 for typical community-college graduates.

Robert I. Lerman, a senior fellow at the institute and an economics professor at American University, says the apprenticeship model is underused. A nationwide scaling-up of the such programs, he and others say, could go a long way toward meeting President Obama's goals for college attendance and completion.

Shortly after taking office, the president urged all Americans to pursue at least one year or more of higher education or career training. He called the nation's community colleges the main gateway to achieving his goal but mentioned other avenues as well, including apprenticeships.

The president also wants the United States to reclaim its spot as the country with the highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. To reach that goal, eight million more Americans would need to earn college degrees and credentials, a number that most experts say would be difficult to reach. But credentials earned by apprentices could apply toward the president's goal, and an expansion of those programs could help the nation approach Mr. Obama's benchmark more quickly.

"Expanding apprenticeships could contribute a great deal to raising the share of young people with valued postsecondary credentials," Mr. Lerman says.

Underutilized Model
Apprenticeship programs that were registered with the federal government—whether affiliated with a college or not—comprised about 500,000 participants last year. In addition, 500,000 to one million more apprentices are estimated to be in programs that are not supervised or monitored by the federal government, according to a 2009 report by the Center for American Progress.

The number of federally recognized apprentices and apprenticeship programs hit a peak in 2007 but then fell as the nation's economy faltered. Advocates of the programs, including Jane Oates, assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, want the numbers to grow again. Speaking at an economic symposium last year, she recommended that the apprenticeship model be expanded to provide an additional link between education and jobs.

Community and technical colleges serve as the main providers of academic instruction for the majority of apprenticeship programs. Some instruction also takes place at employer-owned or -operated facilities and at trade schools. Apprenticeships range from one to six years in length, but most take four years to complete.

Unlike in other countries, such as Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, the apprenticeship system in the United States is decentralized. The federal government does not run the nation's apprenticeship system but rather plays more of an administrative role, ensuring that registered apprenticeships are following regulations and standards. For the 2010 fiscal year, the government allocated just $28-million to the Labor Department's Office of Apprenticeship. As a result, any scaling up of such programs would probably occur at the state level.

South Carolina has become the most aggressive in strengthening and expanding its apprenticeship program. The state's Chamber of Commerce and technical-college system collaborated to create Apprenticeship Carolina, which has been praised by the U.S. Department of Labor and by think tanks like the Center for American Progress and the Urban Institute for its collaborative and innovative formula.

The program, which began in 2007, has drawn increasing interest from businesses and prospective apprentices alike. Before it began, the state had 90 apprenticeships and 777 apprentices. As of June, those figures had soared to 269 and 2,549, respectively.

To start the program, the legislature allocated $1-million to the South Carolina Technical College system. Lawmakers also created an apprenticeship tax credit, which grants companies a $1,000 credit per apprentice per year for up to four years.

The South Carolina Workforce Investment Board, a government agency, also provided $1-million in competitive grants to encourage participation by businesses and technical colleges.

Apprenticeship Carolina grew out of a study conducted by the Chamber of Commerce, which found that such programs were being underused in the state as a training model. The chamber turned to the technical-college system because of its expertise in work-force training. The system's readySC program, which provides recruiting and training for new and expanding businesses, is consistently ranked in the top five among the nation's work-force-training efforts.

The apprenticeship system had zero growth until the chamber handed it over to the colleges, says Robert E. Barnett, the chamber's associate vice president for work-force, education, and manufacturing policy.

Staff members of the technical-college system market the apprenticeships to businesses and encourage them to use the colleges for related courses. Seventy-one percent of new apprenticeship programs in the state do so.

Programs in Growing Fields
What sets Apprenticeship Carolina apart from other programs is its aggressive efforts to sign up companies outside the traditional construction and manufacturing trades. A decision was made early on to reach out to businesses in industries such as energy, transportation, tourism, and health care, says the project's director, Ann Marie Stieritz. The fact that those businesses have been receptive shows that the apprenticeship model is not a relic but "truly a 21st-century training tool," she says.

The idea of expanding the apprenticeship model beyond the traditional trades has been batted around nationally for some time, but few states have embraced that approach.

In 2001 and 2004, the federal General Accountability Office urged the Department of Labor to expand apprenticeship opportunities. Since then the department has provided grants and other incentives to encourage the information-technology and health-care industries to incorporate the apprenticeship model into their business practices. Those industries were chosen because of their importance to the economy and their potential for creating jobs both today and over the long term, said Michael Trupo, a spokesman for the department.

The department has made significant strides in expanding health-care apprenticeships, with 100 new programs in 40 related occupations.

In South Carolina, Gregg Fulton, president of the Bluffton franchise of Right At Home, an in-home care and assistance agency, says he had been unaware that such apprenticeships were available. After learning that his employees could be trained as certified nursing assistants through a federally recognized apprenticeship program, he decided that his business would participate in Apprenticeship Carolina.

Under the supervision of a registered nurse, apprentices get on-the-job training when they visit the homes of elderly patients. And in courses at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, they learn how to take vital signs and how to bathe and feed patients.

Eight apprentices now participate in the yearlong certified-nursing-assistant apprenticeship program. Mr. Fulton's goal is to have 25 by the end of the year. "We've always offered in-house training, but a federally recognized program is so much more rigorous," he says. "It doesn't cost the apprentices anything, and it helps us create a better work force."

Melissa Cristofoletti, 34, is one of the participants. She has worked as a nursing assistant for several years but lacked the credential that would allow her to earn more money in that role.

Getting more training also would mean that she could provide better care for her patients, she says. She divides her time between taking classes at Lowcountry and receiving on-the-job training when she visits patients. After she completes her apprenticeship, she would like to continue her studies.

"I would love to get more training and become a licensed practical nurse," she says. "I want to go as far as I can."

Community Colleges' Role
Other states are also working to encourage the growth of apprenticeships and to involve community colleges in the programs more frequently.

Washington State offers discounted tuition to apprentices at community colleges, paying half of the course costs as a way to entice sponsors of apprenticeship programs to send participants to the colleges for course work.

Florida exempts apprentices from college fees, and Arkansas offers tax credits of up to $2,000 to those taking high-school or college courses. Connecticut offers to pay employers 50 percent of the wages of apprentices, up to $4,800, in manufacturing and construction.

Policy experts agree that encouraging more collaborations between apprenticeship programs and community colleges is a key way to strengthen and expand the nation's apprenticeship system. Those arrangements bring added benefits to apprentices as well, notes Kermit Kaleba, a senior policy analyst at the National Skills Coalition, an advocacy group that supports work-force training. The most significant benefit is that apprentices, in most cases, can earn credit toward associate degrees. That gives them more opportunity to further their career aspirations down the road.

However, a number of barriers remain as states and others seek both to expand apprenticeship programs and to increase the number that use community colleges for academic work. Some community colleges may not offer courses well tailored to apprentices' needs. The content may not be specific enough, equipment at the college may be outdated, the courses offered may meet at inconvenient times for working adults, and the starting dates may not meet employers' needs. Math and reading skills required for entrance into an apprenticeship program may present a barrier for people with poor academic skills.

Growth in apprenticeship programs also may be limited by the number of slots employers are able to afford. American University's Mr. Lerman argues that more states should subsidize portions of the tuition of apprentices taking community-college courses. He also says states should use the money they receive under the federal Workforce Investment Act to coordinate programs that link apprenticeships and community colleges.

Apprenticeships, he says, could be integral in helping states improve their work forces and in helping the nation meet its college-completion goals. "But they haven't been so far," he says, "and that should change."