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States Expand Apprenticeship Programs as Worker Shortages Grow

Registered apprenticeship can bridge the gap between job seekers looking for a living wage and employers who need skilled workers. The system, established during the Great Depression, is experiencing a renaissance.

Registered apprenticeship programs give workers the opportunity to be paid while they gain hands-on experience in skilled jobs. (Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee)
Every state in the continental U.S. has fully reopened and 70 percent of the jobs lost in the spring of 2020 have been recovered. But a mismatch between the needs of employers and the priorities, and supply, of workers is the bigger story.

Forty-six percent of small business owners surveyed in June by the National Federation of Independent Business had job openings they could not fill, more than double the average over the past 48 years. As many as 80 percent of employers contacted by the Conference Board say it’s difficult to find qualified workers.

A Pew survey found that two out of three workers who became unemployed during the pandemic are reconsidering their choice of work. Job losses were more than twice as great for those in low-income jobs as for middle-income positions, and low-wage workers were shaken by the speed at which their jobs became disposable.

It’s not hard to understand that a low-wage job would offer small prospect of relief after the stresses of the past year. For a family of four with one working adult, a minimum wage salary is less than half the living wage in every state in the U.S. If both parents work in minimum wage jobs, their earnings are still less than half what’s needed to meet basic needs in 19 states and well below the cost of living in every other state.

An unprecedented combination of massive retirement rates, near zero growth in the working age population, declining workforce participation and lack of interest in “blue-collar” jobs has created a situation that “could easily develop into one of the worst labor shortages of the last 50 years,” according to the Conference Board. No worker can be taken for granted at this juncture.

A system established to empower workers as the country emerged from the Great Depression is helping today’s employers get the workers they need and clearing paths to middle- and high-income jobs.
A four-cent stamp issued in 1962 commemorated the twenty- fifth anniversary of the National Apprenticeship Act, also known as the Fitzgerald Act.
(National Postal Museum)

Standards for Apprenticeship

In the late 1930s, the U.S. experienced a shortage of skilled workers. Training programs provided by unions and large corporations had been disrupted by the Great Depression. The Fitzgerald Act, known as the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937, established standards and responsibilities for apprenticeships, with the aim of ensuring that apprentices received adequate training and had real opportunities for advancement.

The national Registered Apprenticeship Program that developed out of the Fitzgerald Act is overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and is active in every state and territory. It is administered either by the DOL or by a state apprenticeship agency; the directory for the National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors includes members from 27 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.

Workers who graduate from apprenticeships registered with the DOL or a state agency earn an industry-recognized credential. This is a significant distinction from company-run training programs, says Patricia Morrison, director of the division of registered apprenticeship for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

“A company program may be perfectly fine and good, but if it’s not registered, apprentices don’t get the same nationally portable credential,” she says. “They’re not really a journey worker.”

Morrison is seeing a renaissance of interest in the registered apprenticeship model, and a dawning recognition that it now encompasses many fields. “Some people think it’s union construction programs only, but it’s not,” she says. “We are in IT, computer science, early childhood education, management — there are 1200-plus occupations that use this model.”

Apprentices are paid from the day they begin, and if their jobs require academic training, the employer usually pays for it. This model benefits adult workers who yearn for a career change, but don’t have the resources to quit working or pay to learn new skills. It offers high school graduates an alternative to accumulating college debt or joining the military to access VA education benefits, without closing the door on middle- and high-income employment.

Reconsidering the Holy Grail

Morrison acknowledges that not every job is an apprenticeable occupation. The model is most applicable to skilled, technical jobs that require a year or more to learn; some jobs in fields such as medicine are only accessible to those with advanced degrees. But apprenticeship agencies and employers are finding that, with creativity, the model can be adapted to more and more jobs, to the benefit of employers and workers alike.

It may be time to reconsider a four-year college degree as the “holy grail” for economic success in America, says Morrison. This is not a matter of labeling any student as “not college material,” but taking a harder look at whether college is the only route to a truly rewarding career.

“Go to any one of the union programs or the big manufacturers that use registered apprenticeship and look at the cars that are being driven by the employees,” she says. “You’ve got 22-year-olds driving $80,000 trucks that they paid for and buying houses because they don't have student debt.”

Inertia is one explanation for a focus on college admissions. Disparities between what employers need and what graduates bring to the workplace, mixed with the anxiety of graduates burdened by student debt, are fueling conversations about alternative means of workforce education, says Jody Robbins, apprenticeship program director at the state of Washington Department of Labor and Industries. Robbins is also the president of the National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors (NASTAD).

Robbins compares the current training system to a school bus. “Imagine educators and higher education administrators are driving the bus — they pull up to the bus stop, the employer's waiting, the kids get off the bus, away they go, and hopefully they're going to be successful,” he says. “In apprenticeship, the employer is driving the bus, taking the students where they need to go and changing direction along the way if necessary.”

It’s a misconception to consider “post-secondary” education to be limited to college or university, says Josh Laney, Ed.S., director of the newly-formed Alabama Office of Apprenticeship. A former science teacher, assistant principal and career tech director, he notes that “secondary” simply means after high school.

“Gov. Ivey recognized that Alabama was not capitalizing on the growth of registered apprenticeship as an additional form of post-secondary education,” says Laney. To gain control over implementation of this model, Alabama became the first state in 20 years to move its registered apprenticeship programs from the federal DOL to a state office.

College admissions and scholarships have long been the measure of success for high school counselors, and Laney is working to get them to include the dollar value of registered apprenticeships – “work scholarships,” as he calls them – along with academic awards.

“They get to roll that number in with their other numbers,” he says. “Now they don't feel a disadvantage or loss for placing students into apprenticeships versus placing them into post-secondary university training.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee addresses the state’s Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee.
(Elmer Arte/Washington State Department of Labor and Industries)

Learning at the Speed of Change

The tech sector is a major contributor to almost every state economy, and apprenticeships serve employers in tech companies well. Jody Robbins has been working with the Washington Technology Industry Association for several years to promote diversity in the workforce and overcome reliance on H-1B visas.

Apprenticeship is a responsive training system, a good fit for an industry that is constantly evolving. “When we sit down with higher education systems and tell them they need to make changes to their computer science programs, they agree and tell us they’ll have it through their process in a couple of years,” he says. “The industry folks are scratching their heads, saying that’s two years too long.”

One of Robbins’ partners is Jennifer Carlson, co-founder of Apprenti, a company that helps tech companies create registered apprenticeships. The technology sector is growing at a near exponential rate, she says, and it’s challenging for outside training programs to keep pace.

“The on-the-job training aspect of apprenticeships is an expedited way to learn the industry’s roles and responsibilities,” she says. “The reward is a faster, low to no-cost way to enter the workforce that will support long-term career growth.” Carlson has found that retention rates after apprenticeship is the same for those who have no college as it is for people with four-year degrees.

Cybersecurity has become an urgent priority for all public- and private-sector organizations, and registered apprenticeship programs for these IT specialists are popular. Laney has firsthand awareness of their importance: The FBI has begun construction of a $1 billion, 38,000-acre, research, development, testing and engineering campus in Hunstville.

“If you get a degree to prepare you for cybersecurity, the things you learned are outdated on day one of your job,” he says. “You’ve got to be in it to learn it, to stay up to speed with what’s going on.”

Washington already has 20,000 registered apprentices in its programs, and Gov. Jay Inslee has committed to doubling that number in the next 10 years. “This is doable due to ingenuity of our business and labor communities,” he said. “We have extended generous state financial aid to apprentices in July 2020 and are currently the only state to do so.”
Registered apprenticeship programs in healthcare have been found to improve worker retention in this high-stress field.

Retaining Workers

Despite the fact that it’s been around since the 1930s, registered apprenticeship is not well understood, says Joan Dolan, director of apprenticeship and strategic partnerships for the Maine Department of Labor. As registered apprenticeship includes more new and emerging industries, interest in it is growing, she says, and Maine is a leader in expanding the range of occupations that are included.

Dolan is especially proud of Maine’s apprenticeship offerings in health care, including programs for medical assistants, nursing assistants and nursing specialties. As many as a third of new nurses leave the profession within their first two years on the job, and the past year has taken workplace demands and stresses to new levels.

In a traditional model, a nurse would graduate from college, get a one- or two-week orientation and then start work. Year-long apprenticeship programs enable them to work under the guidance of a mentor and gain in-depth knowledge of the scope of practice.

Maine hospitals had trouble hanging on to new graduates, but apprenticeship programs have alleviated that problem, says Dolan. “The nurses are staying longer.”

In Dolan's experience, this retention effect holds true for apprenticeships in any field. Workers appreciate the fact that a company has invested time and training funds to bring them completely up to speed, she says. “The company is going to have lot more loyalty from that individual.”

Partners in the Maine Department of Labor's registered apprenticeship program discuss its benefits.

Return on Investment

State requirements for registration of apprenticeship programs vary. Apprenticeship offices provide guidance and support, but program development requires investment from employers. “It takes resources, money and staff,” says Robbins. “If industries aren't willing to make that upfront investment and sustain it over time, registered apprenticeship will not work.”

This process can provide some immediate benefits, such as prompting an organization to take a fresh look at the skills its workers need to succeed and help it prosper. It can also create challenges if a company's operations do not provide natural opportunities for interaction between apprentices and mentors.

“Employers have to pay now and reap the benefits later,” says Robbins.

The return on these investments can go well beyond the obvious reward of having workers who truly understand their jobs. With help from state agencies, veterans can access education benefits while enrolled in registered apprenticeships, giving them financial resources that can approach their salaries as journey workers. This is a significant competitive advantage for companies seeking to recruit veterans. The prospect of earning a credential recognized throughout the country is an enticement to many job seekers.

In Washington, construction companies and environmentalists partnered on an initiative that piggybacked on a state mandate for utilities to increase the size of their renewable energy portfolios. Any amount of renewable energy they purchase from a solar or wind farm using registered apprentices is credited at a rate of 1.2. This 20 percent boost gives these companies that apprentice an edge, and encourages them to create programs that both cut their labor costs and seed a robust energy workforce, a boon to the clean energy industry and the state.

As another example, contractors and subcontractors participating in public works projects are allowed to use registered apprentices and pay them at apprenticeship rates rather than the prevailing wage requirement under the Davis-Bacon Act.

Public-sector employers are also looking to registered apprenticeships to address their recruitment and retention problems. “Some state agencies don’t have any kind of workforce planning, professional development or mobility,” says Patricia Morrison. “People want to grow and move up — they want change, some sort of upward path.”

Every employer, large or small, public or private, has an opportunity to create their own way of building workers, she says. “This system has far-reaching benefits if people can figure out how to morph it to their business.”
Work-based learning at a Mercedes plant. Alabama’s thriving automotive industry is being bolstered by apprenticeships.
(Alabama Office of Apprenticeship)

Crossing the Water

Alabama’s new state Office of Apprenticeship was created through a combination of an executive order from Gov. Ivey and state legislation. As its first director, Josh Laney is racing to meet the state’s goal of 500,000 newly credentialed workers by 2025, at times spending days driving across the state to enroll new companies.

Alabama is on track to become the second-largest automotive producer in the U.S. in the next year, he says. It was recently ranked eighth in an analysis of state economic momentum during the first quarter of 2021, exceeding the nation’s economic performance.

The state decided to take the reins after discovering that employers who wanted to develop registered apprenticeship programs were waiting months for responses from the DOL. Because it had been decades since anyone had switched from a federally administered program to a state-run one, the process was cumbersome.

Others were watching, says Laney. “We were the first water buffalo standing at the side of the Nile, looking at a bunch of crocodiles, and they were waiting to see if we made it across.” In recent months, Colorado and Tennessee have announced intentions to transition to a state apprenticeship agency, and seven other states have contacted Laney for guidance.

Alabama has a problematic dissonance between employer needs and worker behavior, one that registered apprenticeships may be able to crack. It leads the Southeast in unemployment rate, Laney says, but 43 percent of the able-bodied, working age adults in the state are not seeking work. A March survey ordered by the governor’s office found that 27 percent of them were not looking because they did not have the skills needed for the jobs that were available.

“That one statistic explains why we need registered apprenticeship,” says Laney. “We’ll never meet our goal if we just recruit people out of high school – we’ve got to get the rest of those Alabamians back into the workforce.”
Progress in expanding registered apprenticeship depends on federal leadership, says Jody Robbins, president of the National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors.
(Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee)

A Disservice to Our People

Federal support for registered apprenticeship increased under the two previous administrations and has helped states expand their efforts. A bill before Congress, the National Apprenticeship Act of 2020, proposes billions for apprenticeship grants. It does not specify that all these funds should go to support registered apprenticeships, however; and it remains to be seen exactly what might become available to state offices.

“We desperately need apprenticeship in this country — we need every person who’s capable of working to go to work,” says Joan Dolan. “We're doing a disservice to our people by not having structured training programs.”

Robust state systems are important, says NASTAD President Jody Robbins, but real progress depends on federal leadership. “If the national government can get off the dime and modernize the National Apprenticeship Act, open up some new avenues for youth and pre-apprenticeship and create constructs that business, labor and educators can get behind, the time is opportune.”

It’s an open question whether people be willing to give up enough of their own turf in this new realm to make things work, he says. Toward this end, Dolan emphasizes the need to get parents on board with the idea that it’s OK for their child not to go to college and make a great living by joining an apprenticeship program.

“I know tattoo artists who make a quarter million a year,” says Patricia Morrison. “But no one wants to tell the kids that.”

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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