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What to Know about Competency-Based Apprenticeship Programs

Highlights from JFF's recent webinar, Understanding Competency-Based Apprenticeship Models.

April 2, 2020

At a Glance

Highlights from JFF’s recent webinar, Understanding Competency-Based Apprenticeship Models.

Competency-based apprenticeship programs are on the rise and for good reason. In the right circumstances, this approach can offer needed flexibility for employers and program sponsors and provide a way to determine if apprentices have truly acquired the skills and competencies required for the job.

But JFF has found that many employers and stakeholders need more information on the competency-based approach and how it differs from more traditional time-based models. They ask questions like, “Why would this model be of benefit?” and “How would I put it into practice?”

To answer some of these questions, we asked a group of experts to join us in a webinar, Understanding Competency-Based Apprenticeship Programs.

1. What Are Competency-Based Apprenticeship Programs?

Time-based apprenticeship models are known for their structured approach: 2,000 hours of on-the-job training per year with an additional 144 hours of related classroom instruction.

Competency-based models focus more on the apprentice’s ability to demonstrate competencies in an observable and measurable way. This model provides an employer with a way to determine whether the apprentice is gaining in competency. And, it also allows the apprentice to move through the related technical instruction upon mastery, rather than being bound to the timeframes of specific courses or semesters.

2. What is the Department of Labor’s Take on This Approach?

We were joined at our webinar by Zachary Boren, chief of the Division of Program Quality, Standards, and Policy at the US Labor Department’s Office of Apprenticeship.

Boren defined competency-based approaches, according to the DOL, as “attainment of manual, mechanical, or technical skills and knowledge as specified by an occupational standard.” That occupational standard is compared against the employer’s submitted work process schedule and curriculum to ensure alignment.

While this approach is focused on competencies rather than time, the DOL still expects the apprenticeship to last 2,000 hours at least so the student can fully practice and demonstrate competencies.

Boren acknowledged that competency-based apprenticeship isn’t for everyone—it’s important to factor in context and goals. Some industries, like traditional building trades and manufacturing, have a successful track record using time-based models. However, it is still immensely helpful for employers and sponsors to be familiar with competency-based or hybrid models so that they can make the right choice for their specific goals and circumstances.

You can read the DOL’s updated circular that includes competency-based models alongside time- and hybrid-based here.

3. How Do We Put a Competency-Based Model into Practice?

The DOL has been working for several years with Urban Institute to develop nationally approved frameworks for a variety of sectors. Urban Institute Senior Research Associate, Diana Elliot, PhD, described how these non-proprietary frameworks were created through an iterative, consensus-driven process with employers, trade associations, and apprenticeship experts.

These frameworks are available for use off the shelf for a variety of sectors and positions, including industrial maintenance technician, transmission line worker, medical assistant, cybersecurity support technician, developer, and heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver, among many others.

4. What Does This Approach Look Like?

Following the Great Recession, the state of Nevada focused on diversifying its business and industry to help reduce the wide economic swings it had previously experienced. Manny Lamarre, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovation, discussed how the state needed to provide new supports for those in the workforce who weren’t used to working in the newly arriving industries, in such areas as advanced manufacturing, IT, and health care.

The state viewed apprenticeship, specifically the competency-based model, as an opportunity to quickly expand its workforce’s skills to meet the needs of the new employers.

As one example, Cheryl Olson, project director of Nevada’s Apprenticeship Project at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, cited the battery-manufacturing Gigafactory planned by electric car maker Tesla and Panasonic. Although the development is still under construction, it is expected to create more than 10,000 jobs. The competency-based apprenticeship model is helping workers get up to speed quickly to meet the skill needs of these employers.

Olson explained how she provides information on all apprenticeship models, but that she has seen a trend with employers choosing the competency-based model. Once employers understand their choices, they find the competency-based option is easier to adapt to their systems.

In Conclusion

We see the competency-based model as a promising approach to consider when in need of a faster, more responsive method of workforce training. We’re grateful for the time of our panelists in sharing their perspectives and experiences.

This blog was funded by the generous support of as part of JFF’s Apprenticeship Awareness and Expansion Initiative. The national initiative expands apprenticeship and other high-quality, structured work-based learning programs through on-the-ground technical assistance and a resource and communications campaign.

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