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Apprenticeship Offers a Path to Recovery Through Tumultuous Times: A Q&A With Eric Seleznow

Apprenticeship is a vital component of an equitable economic recovery. This National Apprenticeship Week, we must focus on supporting employers and other stakeholders as they deliver on this potential.

November 9, 2020

At a Glance

Apprenticeship is a vital component of an equitable economic recovery. This National Apprenticeship Week, we must focus on supporting employers and other stakeholders as they deliver on this potential.

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The devastating economic impact of the pandemic has made clear the need to champion workforce solutions that will drive economic advancement for all. That’s why JFF is joining with organizations across the country to recognize the sixth annual National Apprenticeship Week (November 8-14). A centuries-old earn-and-learn model, apprenticeship has made enormous strides from its roots as a training program for predominantly white tradesmen to a forward-looking approach that serves an increasingly diverse population not only in the trades but also in a wide range of industries, including IT, advanced manufacturing, and health care.

This week also marks the third anniversary of JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning. We launched the Center in 2017 because we believed in the power of apprenticeship to provide youth and adults with the skills, credentials, and experience they need to enter and succeed in middle-class careers. As the nation grapples with the impact of millions of workers losing their jobs due to COVID-19, the value and promise of apprenticeship is more important today than ever.

To recognize these two occasions, Eric Seleznow, JFF’s senior advisor and head of our Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning, shared his expertise on the current state of apprenticeship and its role in achieving an equitable economic recovery.

I hope you’ll join us in celebrating apprenticeship and the promise it holds for providing equitable opportunities to established and emerging industries.

Maria Flynn, President and CEO

Thanks for talking with me today, Eric! Let’s get started with a big question. This week is National Apprenticeship Week, where we celebrate the opportunities and potential that apprenticeship provides for thousands of employers and workers across the United States. But this year, we face a deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, social justice concerns, and a contentious presidential election. Millions of Americans are out of work and many employers are struggling to stay afloat. In the midst of this downturn, what is the outlook for apprenticeship?

Great question, Ali. This has been a tumultuous year. We’re commemorating National Apprenticeship Week in an unprecedented time. What I’m celebrating this week is the potential that apprenticeship has for us as a nation as we move forward. In the last few months, our country has been coping with a pandemic coupled with massive unemployment, urgent conversations on racial justice, and a contentious election cycle. Apprenticeship is not the most important thing on people’s minds right now. But I see real opportunity in the coming months and years to use apprenticeship as part of an equitable economic recovery strategy for workers and employers alike.

Before we talk about the future, let’s consider where apprenticeship is right now. We’ve seen again and again in the past 20 years that apprenticeship declines during periods of economic uncertainty. Today, we’re seeing that apprenticeship programs have been halted in their tracks in certain industries, impacting nascent youth and adult apprenticeship programs. We’ve seen massive program reductions in industries such as hospitality, food service, and retail. But the good news is there are signs of growth and expansion in other industries, like manufacturing, health care, and IT.

Apprenticeship is not the most important thing on people’s minds right now. But I see real opportunity in the coming months and years to use apprenticeship as part of an equitable economic recovery strategy for workers and employers alike.

What role do you see for apprenticeship when the economic recovery starts?

We can’t wait for a recovery to start to put strategies in place to reconnect workers. Apprenticeship can play a valuable role in training youth and dislocated workers for new careers. Those conversations need to start happening right away. Now is the time to develop our strategic and tactical relationships and partnerships. It’s time to reach out and educate employers and pull regional partners together to create an apprenticeship ecosystem to fuel recovery and job growth. We’re planning for the demand for workers that will come in the near future. There’s a lot of federal funding available right now that can be used to put these plans into motion.

Especially in those sectors I mentioned earlier—IT, manufacturing, and health care—these employers are in desperate need of skilled workers, and that demand will only increase. If we start developing these programs now, they’ll be ready to serve both workers and employers when the time is right. We need to build the future workforce—not simply “buy” it through traditional hiring strategies.

Even before the pandemic, there was a growing call for integrating education and employment into a more fluid and lifelong experience. This demand was partially driven by the high cost of a college education, which has grown by 150 percent over the past 20 years. How can an established model like apprenticeship contribute to this future ecosystem?

In the United States, recruitment and hiring strategies have been changing over the past decade. Employers are increasingly looking at alternatives to traditional degrees and are now looking more closely at skills and competencies. Sure, diplomas, degrees, and certifications are vital, but skills and competencies—what one can do, the work experience you’ve had, and what you can contribute—is oftentimes more important than whether or not you have a degree. Employers are often looking for immediate skill alignment, and more employers are willing to “build” their workforce through apprenticeships and other innovative practices. And many employers will support further degree attainment for a worker as needed.

The future is happening now. I anticipate that the 2020s will bring a continued transformation of the U.S. apprenticeship systems. I believe we’re in the early stages of a major transformation that’s been happening in work-based learning and apprenticeship since President Obama set a goal to double and diversify apprenticeships in 2014. There’s been significant growth in apprenticeships for adults and youth alike, and it’s become a more widely accepted training solution for a much broader range of industries and employers. It can be used to train workers of all ages at any point in a person’s career, allowing workers to learn new skills that employers need. In a fast-changing work world, that ability to keep up with the latest advancements will be critical for a business to stay competitive.

For young workers especially, there are a lot of upsides to apprenticeship. It provides them with an opportunity to step into clear, high-quality pathways for good jobs and good wages, while not sacrificing academic learning. It has shown a demonstrable increase in skills, competencies, and wages for workers, and typically lead to postsecondary credentials and degrees from employers.

Apprenticeship can also help a worker avoid the crushing impact of student loan debt. With postsecondary education costs through the roof, apprenticeship programs allow young people to earn a living and support themselves or contribute to their families while learning. And what’s particularly interesting right now is that, historically, college enrollments increase during times of high unemployment, but that hasn’t been the case this time. That’s partly because the cost of that linear model of high-school-to-college-and-out are ridiculously high for most American families.

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Historically, women, people of color, and other marginalized populations have been underrepresented in apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have always been considered pathways to the middle class, but not for all Americans. Over the last few years, apprenticeship has been transforming to become more of a pathway to the middle class for these groups. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but can you tell us why you think this change has been happening, and what we can do to provide these opportunities to a more diverse range of workers?

What’s driving this now, and the difference I’ve seen over the past couple of years, is that the business community is starting to reflect on their efforts to diversify, and they’re using apprenticeships to advance diversity within their organizations and to better reflect the demographics of the communities they serve.

There’s a general recognition of past underrepresentation, and so there are a lot of people who are taking action to ensure that women, people of color, people with disabilities, and opportunity youth have access to apprenticeship programs in ways they’ve never had before. Companies are interested in recruitment, workforce, and training strategies that address these inequities, not only to diversify their workforce, but to provide equity in terms of opportunities for advancement. Almost every contract I’ve seen lately for federal and state apprenticeship strategies, if not all of them, have focused on diversity and equity as one of their priority goals.

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There are a lot of people who are taking action to ensure that women, people of color, people with disabilities, and opportunity youth have access to apprenticeship programs in ways they’ve never had before.

Especially now, there’s great concern over the “first out, last in” cycle that’s often seen during an economic recovery, in which those who were first to lose their jobs are the last ones to regain employment. These are often frontline workers without college degrees. Apprenticeship can be an especially effective pathway to bring these workers back into the workforce, pay them while they gain the skills they need, and help them gain nationally recognized credentials and increased pay that could help them weather future economic storms.

Joe Biden will take office as president in January 2021. What do you expect to see from a Biden administration in terms of investment in an apprenticeship system?

Apprenticeship has been—and continues to be—a uniquely bipartisan issue. Since 2015, the federal government has invested almost $1 billion in apprenticeship programs, and we want to see that level of investment continue, especially in the post-COVID recovery. Since 2016, Congress has provided bipartisan apprenticeship funding—from $90 million in 2016 to $175 million today. We know that the current Congress is very interested in continuing and expanding apprenticeship and has recently proposed a revision of the National Apprenticeship Act, including up to $400 million in additional funding.

President-Elect Biden was heavily involved with apprenticeship during his tenure as vice president in the Obama administration, and I anticipate he will drive efforts to further scale and diversify apprenticeship programs. He understands the need for skills and training to advance workers to the middle class and beyond.

JFF was pleased to see that Biden’s campaign proposal to strengthen manufacturing highlights our Industrial Manufacturing Technician apprenticeship that we developed in partnership with the AFL-CIO and other partners as a model to emulate. In addition, Biden’s campaign specifically proposed investment in education and training in the workforce, so we expect to see further investment in apprenticeship and other models. Some of these investments include the public workforce system and increased collaboration between regional partners, community colleges, workforce boards, and others to encourage collaboration to expand apprenticeship.

I’d also like to see a continuing emphasis on growing high-quality youth apprenticeships and an ongoing focus in the IT, manufacturing and health care industries. Additionally I hope to see a continuing focus on pathways to apprenticeship, particularly through high-quality pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs, to improve access and opportunities for more underrepresented Americans to take advantage of apprenticeships.

Congress has been advancing a reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937. This is important because there have been very few tweaks made to this legislation over the years, and it’s time to modernize and double down on the system. The revision would include funding for state apprenticeship agencies, more funding for the National Office of Apprenticeship and a couple of major grant programs, a focus on youth apprenticeship, and support for intermediaries. So there’s a lot of different funding possibilities that they are thinking about.

I also want to highlight the presidential transition memo JFF released today that outlines key policy priorities needed to support an equitable economic recovery, including several around work-based learning in particular:

  • Supporting rapid skill building and credential attainment through initiatives such as apprenticeship
  • Reauthorizing the National Apprenticeship Act to support its expansion in high-growth fields and occupations
  • Expanding work-based learning opportunities, including apprenticeship, to every high school and college student

Any parting thoughts?

I encourage those who are new to apprenticeship to take time this week to learn about it. There are a lot of quality resources out there, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s website and, of course, our own Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning. We believe apprenticeship and other forms of work-based learning will play an important role in the economic recovery that begins once the COVID-19 crisis is brought under control. We urge employers, intermediaries, and other organizations that sponsor and run apprenticeship programs to join us in doing what we can at this difficult time to sustain the promise of apprenticeship, maintain the progress of the past six years, and use these strategies to support recovery from COVID and helping dislocated workers get back to work.