Our country has invested nearly $1 billion in the apprenticeship system over the past five years and the results have been remarkable. The number of apprentices has nearly doubled to close to 700,000—with growth in a range of new industries, including IT, health care, and business services.
But as COVID-19 spreads from coast to coast, and we enter what could be a prolonged economic downturn, I am deeply concerned that many of these hard-fought gains could be lost. New apprentices are often the first to go when business slows. The momentum we have created around apprenticeship is at risk.
The momentum we have created around apprenticeship is at risk.
The threat exists despite the fact that apprenticeship and other forms of work-based learning are now widely recognized as effective ways to provide workers across many industries with high-quality training that meets employer demand and can help individuals launch family-supporting careers.
We have seen again and again in the past 20 years that apprenticeship declines during periods of economic uncertainty. For example, from 2008 to 2011, the United States lost 86,000 apprentices—a drop of more than 20 percent. The decline was tied to low demand for labor in manufacturing, construction, and the building trades during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.
USDOL Apprenticeship Statistics, National Registered Apprenticeship Results
The 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had similar effects on workforce development programs in general and on apprenticeship specifically.
Now, the COVID-19 crisis is exacting a devastating toll on families, communities, and businesses. A lot of economic activity has slowed or come to a halt, and more than 3 million people have lost their jobs as employer demand for workers plummets. While it’s possible that this period of economic disruption will be temporary, the downturn may significantly harm apprenticeship, and it’s not clear whether we will be able to sustain the gains of the past five years.
At JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning, we and our partners have put substantial effort into expanding apprenticeship into new industries while fostering access to apprenticeship for a broader, more diverse group of workers.
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 and maintain the progress of the past five years.
Here are four strategies to help preserve and strengthen apprenticeship:
- Continue to advocate for apprenticeship at the local, state, and federal levels. Every apprenticeship program has champions that have invested energy and human and financial capital to ensure its success. Work with those champions to engage municipal, state, and federal leaders, including governors and U.S. congressional delegations, to advocate for apprenticeship as an essential component of any long-term economic recovery and sustainability initiative.
- Continue to work on expanding access to apprenticeships. We must keep up our efforts to open apprenticeships to members of underrepresented populations who in the past have not had access to high-quality work-based learning programs. Work with partners to ensure that people from communities that are most vulnerable to economic disruption have the support they need to emerge from this crisis well prepared for new career opportunities. Such efforts are particularly important for people who are disconnected from educational and workplace institutions that traditionally drive career success.
- Continue to advance youth apprenticeship. There is growing interest in embedding youth apprenticeship programs into high school career pathways and better aligning apprenticeship with higher education. Too many young people leave school and enter the workforce unprepared for careers that are changing rapidly. And those who have attended college have crushing debt only to find that their education was not aligned with the needs of the labor market.
Youth apprenticeships are playing increasingly important roles in long-term human resources development strategies because they are effective means of preparing young people for the future of work. Apprenticeships can also be incorporated into postsecondary degree programs and coursework for professional credentials. We must continue to support youth apprenticeship so that students do not return to school after the crisis to find that they have lost opportunities they were counting on.
- Don’t give up. As individuals, communities, and economies around the world struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, advocating for apprenticeship during this difficult time will send a message of hope to young people, workers, and employers. Encourage training providers to offer online instruction to apprentices, if possible, instead of discontinuing programs altogether. Consider postponing assessments instead of canceling them. Try to find alternative opportunities for apprentices whose current positions are cut.
It’s important to remember that economic slowdowns are inevitable. And as we navigate the current crisis, there is a great deal we don’t yet know about our economic future. However, one thing we do know is that, to ensure the long-term health of our economy, those of us involved in running or supporting apprenticeships must continue to fulfill our agreements with employers, employees, program sponsors, state apprenticeship agencies, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
We urge everyone involved with apprenticeship programs to help sustain the promise of apprenticeship and maintain the progress of the past five years.
Interest in apprenticeship has been high in recent years, and work-based learning has been undergoing a period of expansion, innovation, and transformation. The COVID-19 virus is an unsettling reality that could curtail that progress.
To ensure that doesn’t happen, we must rise to the challenge and shore up our relationships with partners, redouble our efforts to advocate for apprenticeship, and find ways to continue to meet employers’ needs. Ultimately, we must not lose focus on the importance of apprenticeship to the next generation of workers—and our nation’s economic strength.