Let’s help intermediaries expand US apprenticeships

Thanks to funding from Congress and leadership by the Obama administration, the US Department of Labor issued a grant announcement requesting proposals from national intermediary organizations to expand apprenticeships in the United States

Intermediaries stand between the government and private individuals, families, and employers. Since the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, the United States has been well known for its rich array of intermediating institutions, from churches to local charities to business associations.

Nearly every country with a large-scale apprenticeship system relies heavily on intermediary organizations. Even in Germany, where apprenticeships are widespread and employers know a great deal about apprenticeships, intermediaries play a significant role. Chambers of commerce encourage firms to operate programs, hire apprentices, help apprentice trainers in companies, assess apprentices’ mastery, and award certificates when apprentices complete their training.

In countries that recently scaled up their apprenticeship systems, intermediaries have made critical contributions. One reason is that few companies are knowledgeable enough about apprenticeship to build their own programs without assistance. England’s private employment and learning providers have persuaded many employers to start apprenticeship programs, helped employers implement the programs, screened applicants for available apprenticeship openings, and provided the off-job training required of apprenticeships. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers boasts a membership of over 770 members.

Government allocations for off-job training were sufficiently attractive incentives for England’s intermediaries to reach out to various employers and show them why apprenticeships are in their interests.

Nearly 40 percent of participating employers reported that their main reason for offering apprenticeships was “being approached by a training provider.” Many employers know little about apprenticeship prior to their work with training providers. However, once companies start programs, about 80 percent continue to offer apprenticeships after the initial wave of apprentices complete programs. The effectiveness of intermediaries’ training, support, and communication explained a good deal of employer satisfaction.

In Australia, group training organizations (GTOs) have worked with over 100,000 employers to set up and operate apprenticeships. The GTOs not only market apprenticeships to employers, find good candidates for apprenticeships, and arrange for the off-job training, but they are also often the employer of record of apprentices, saving host employers from extensive paperwork and potential liability.

Some GTOs provide the off-site training directly, while others coordinate with colleges or other training organizations. GTOs also partner with schools and government career services to increase awareness of apprenticeships among students and parents.

In the United States, the most prominent intermediaries promoting and operating apprenticeships are trade unions and construction industry associations. Both groups can take credit for funding and running high-quality apprenticeship programs that generate high wages, matched by high productivity. The workers and employers even fund and conduct the off-job training, usually in their own training centers.

While the construction apprenticeship models have generated a highly skilled and productive workforce, extending apprenticeships to other occupations and industries will likely require a wider range of intermediaries. For apprenticeships to penetrate health, information technology, logistics, and engineering (as they have in many countries), intermediaries need to publicize, market, simplify, and coordinate apprenticeship programs with and for employers.

Today’s opportunities for expanding apprenticeship are extraordinary. Apprenticeships offer a proven approach to learning occupational and employability skills.

They are cost-effective for workers, who do not have to accumulate debt or forgo income while they train.

Apprenticeships are cost-effective for firms, who can recoup their investments through the productivity of apprentices and reduced recruitment and turnover costs.

And they are cost-effective for the government because the training is especially effective and well matched to the labor market and because employers bear most of the costs.

What has been missing is a mechanism for attracting enough employers to the world of registered apprenticeship. That is why this announcement for funding opportunities for intermediaries is so important. Once US intermediaries begin to succeed in stimulating large numbers of employers to adopt apprenticeships as a primary tool for recruiting and building a skilled workforce, the word will spread and ultimately lead to a dramatic increase in opportunities for rewarding careers for American workers.

by Robert I. Lerman

Let’s help intermediaries expand US apprenticeships