Higher Education

Apprenticeships could provide a path to the middle class for millions of workers, new study says

The workforce programs could spread to more than 70 well-paid occupations

Client Paul Chirico of Los Angeles works with tax preparer Erika Arbulante to see how the Affordable Care Act, ACA, will impact his tax returns at H&R Block on January 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

Client Paul Chirico of Los Angeles works with tax preparer Erika Arbulante to see how the Affordable Care Act, ACA, will impact his tax returns at H&R Block on January 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. A new study suggests that tax preparers, along with members of nearly 75 other occupations, could be trained for their jobs through apprenticeship programs.

With her plea earlier this month for more investment in apprenticeships, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos joined a long list of policy makers, including former President Obama, who’ve embraced the workforce training programs as a way to prepare people for tomorrow’s careers.

But can these programs – long limited to trades such as carpentry, plumbing and masonry  – realistically serve as pathways to middle-class jobs for all but a sliver of Americans? A new analysis from Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work and Burning Glass Technologies, a software company that studies labor-market data, suggests the answer may be yes.

The company examined more than 23 million job postings and found that 74 occupations – including tax preparers, human resource specialists and graphic designers — could be filled by apprentices who forgo pricey college degrees to earn a salary as they take courses and get on-the-job training. These occupations offer job stability, require a skillset easily obtained through specialized training and eschew hefty licensing requirements. The study also found that the number of jobs filled by apprentices could be expanded eightfold, from 410,000 today to approximately 3.3 million.

“Employers have often shunned apprenticeships because investing in training sounds like a big cost relative to the ‘free’ model of hiring people who are already trained out of the box,” said Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass. “But when you put yourself in a position where it’s going to take a lot of time and cost a lot of money to fill jobs only to have workers turn over really fast, the status quo may actually turn out to be quite expensive.”

More organizations have begun to adopt this logic. IBM, Amazon and Microsoft have all started apprenticeship programs to train people for hard-to-fill jobs. Insurance and consulting companies such as Accenture, Aon and Zurich Insurance are expanding apprenticeships in the United States, while such opportunities are growing here in health care and education, too. District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, a workforce group in Philadelphia, recently unveiled apprenticeships for would-be community health workers, medical assistants and pre-K teachers.

Related: U.S. quietly works to expand apprenticeships to fill white-collar jobs

“This is more than just a fad at this point,” said Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills with New America, a Washington think tank. “Some companies are going to look at this as a way to diversify their talent; others are going to ask, ‘Have we been hiring BA’s out of habit or necessity’? Some other industries are going to be pressed for workers.”

Last year, the Obama administration committed $90 million to expand apprenticeships and, this June, President Trump more than doubled the amount to $200 million. Trump, whose celebrity rose off the ratings of his reality show “The Apprentice,” has called for the creation of 5 million apprenticeships over five years while proposing to cut a slew of other job-training programs.

But even according to Burning Glass’s bullish assessment, that target appears unrealistic. Parton said he worries that as the administration seeks to quickly ramp up apprenticeships — the DOL has announced an expedited approval process — certain requirements, such as higher wages for apprentices as they build skills, may be cast aside.

“There is a long, proud history of apprenticeships in the United States,” Parton said. While there’s “ripe room for modernization” of the training programs, he said, “you don’t want to lose what makes them special.”

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Caroline Preston

Caroline Preston is a senior editor. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with The… See Archive

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