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To Transform the American Workforce System, Apprenticeship Needs Stronger Supports

Increasing the development and uptake of equitable, high-quality apprenticeship models will require accessibility, structured pre-apprenticeships, and strong intermediaries.

November 16, 2018

At a Glance

Increasing the development and uptake of equitable, high-quality apprenticeship models will require accessibility, structured pre-apprenticeships, and strong intermediaries.

Eric M. Seleznow

The nursing assistant who takes care of your elderly parent. The software developer who designed the program you rely on for work. The insurance claims analyst who processed your fender bender. These are the new faces of apprenticeship in America.

As the labor market tightens to record-low unemployment, employers far beyond the building trades are turning to apprenticeship as a way to grow their own talent. While embracing this time-tested approach to career training, growing industries like techhealth care, and financial services are also challenging traditional approaches to apprenticeship.

The United States added over 200,000 new apprentices since 2014, according to the US Department of Labor—a 53 percent increase and the largest growth in decades. Apprenticeship enjoys rare bipartisan support in Congress, substantial federal and state investment, and innovation across education, industry, labor, and workforce development. Now, we have an enormous opportunity to further expand apprenticeship and reshape our workforce system to better serve employers and workers alike.

The Department of Labor has played a major role in driving adoption of apprenticeship, including sponsoring the annual National Apprenticeship Week, which is being held through Friday. But with apprentices comprising less than 1 percent of the workforce, there’s still a long way to go before apprenticeship can reach its full potential.

At JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning, we are paying particular attention to three ways to increase the growth of high-quality apprenticeship across the country:

  1. Throw open the doors to workers currently underrepresented in skilled positions.
  2. Provide high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs.
  3. Increase resources for the organizations that can help employers develop programs.

Open the Doors Wide to Underrepresented Populations

In the United States, where the average age of apprentices is 29, the apprenticeship system has not always provided equal access to women, people of color, and youth. But opportunities for high-quality jobs and family-supporting wages should be equally available to people of all backgrounds and all ages.

Consider these facts: Less than 10 percent of apprentices are women. And while people of color make up nearly 33 percent of apprentices, they are underrepresented in high-wage occupations. The landscape doesn’t improve for people with disabilities or opportunity youth.

If apprenticeship is the future of workforce development in America, it must work for all Americans. We must build on-ramps to apprenticeship for workers from a wide variety of backgrounds and incorporate in-program supports to help every apprentice succeed.

Expand Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Programs

One proven on-ramp for individuals from a range of backgrounds is pre-apprenticeship. These programs provide essential academic, technical, and employability skills in a supportive setting to help ensure participants are ready to succeed in an apprenticeship.

They also provide a critical introduction for people who otherwise might not know about the availability of apprenticeship or the potential impact on their economic future. And they can guide participants through the process of applying for and entering apprenticeship programs.

While many pre-apprenticeship programs are successful, the quality is uneven. Establishing a common purpose and structure for pre-apprenticeship would enable more programs to be effective.

Increase Resources for Strong Intermediaries

To start, grow, and strengthen pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs alike, intermediaries are crucial. These are nonprofits, community colleges, and other organizations that can handle much of the heavy lifting involved in organizing an apprenticeship program.

Intermediaries can play many roles, including conducting outreach to employers; managing relationships with labor partners; connecting with organizations that can help recruit a diverse pool of applicants; and providing the technical assistance necessary to help establish a functional apprenticeship program.

As the apprenticeship movement has grown, more organizations have been willing to step up to take on this essential work. Now, we must ensure that these intermediaries have the resources they need to be the strong navigators, advocates, and implementers that employers and employees need.

Apprenticeship and other forms of high-quality work-based learning have proven to be effective solutions for employers and workers alike, and their evolution with changing times bodes well for their sustainability. By closing gaps in reaching underrepresented populations, establishing structured pre-apprenticeships, and supporting strong intermediaries, we will begin to see the full potential of apprenticeship to strengthen the American workforce.


Apprenticeship is a workforce training model that combines paid on-the-job learning and formal classroom instruction to help a worker master the knowledge and skills needed for success in a specific career. Apprenticeship programs vary in duration, quality, and oversight.

Registered Apprenticeship (RA) is a type of apprenticeship approved by the US Department of Labor or by a state apprenticeship agency, signifying that it meets certain quality standards. RA programs last one to six years and provide approximately 2,000 hours of on-the-job learning and 144 hours of related instruction. Registered apprentices receive on-the-job supervision and mentorship and earn progressively higher wages and an industry-recognized credential. RA programs are sponsored by employers, labor management organizations, and/or other intermediary organizations, such as community colleges, workforce boards, and industry associations.

Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP) is a new apprenticeship approach being developed by the US Department of Labor that will include accreditation by approved non-government organizations. 

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