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White-collar apprenticeships
Jordan Buckle (left) and Priya Kaur, who work as apprentices for the city of London, near the 15th-century Guldhall behind them. American policymakers are pushing the idea of using apprenticeships to launch white-collar careers.

LONDON — Priya Kaur figures she gave college a fair chance to teach her the skills she needed to become an information technology specialist. But just four months in, she was frustrated by what she calls the lack of useful knowledge in her “generic” classes.

England’s apprenticeship system allowed the now 18-year-old London native to switch gears and learn those skills on the job instead. Kaur is in her third year as a paid IT apprentice working for the city of London, helping city employees with computer troubleshooting, financial reports, and other technical issues.

“I’ve always been interested in IT,” she said at the city’s offices near the 15th-century Guildhall, or town hall, in the heart of London. “And I’ve always had an interest in the more practical side of things.”

Although U.S. apprenticeships have traditionally focused on manual skills such as automotive repair and carpentry, the United States is eyeing European models like this — which provide fast-tracked, on-the-job training in white-collar professions — to prepare people for some of the country’s 5.6 million unfilled jobs as college costs, and the time it takes to earn degrees, keep going up.

President Barack Obama pledged in 2014 to double the number of U.S. apprentices to 750,000 from 375,000 by 2019. The country is closing in on 500,000, said John Ladd, who has administered apprenticeships since 2008 at the U.S. Department of Labor, which essentially accredits apprentice and certificate programs.

The idea has attracted bipartisan backing: Congress this year appropriated funds for apprenticeships — $90 million — for the first time, on top of $175 million in apprenticeship grants the Obama administration handed out to colleges, states and companies last fall to help jumpstart new programs.

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In the past, Ladd said, federal support was limited because of concerns that young people would choose apprenticeships that led to menial jobs rather than enter conventional degree programs. That’s a “false choice,” he said. This new generation of apprentices often earn college credit while training for a profession, he noted, so paid apprenticeships actually make it easier to earn degrees, faster and without student-loan debt.

“It really isn’t about limiting kids’ choices. It’s about giving you an option. If you decide college isn’t for you, what other options do we give kids?”

“It really isn’t about limiting kids’ choices,” he said. “It’s about giving you an option. If you decide college isn’t for you, what other options do we give kids?”

At Illinois’ Harper College, a community college just northwest of Chicago, Switzerland-based Zurich Insurance asked educators to try a Swiss-style apprenticeship program to train more claims adjusters and other workers for its Chicago-area offices. Zurich pays tuition and other expenses for each student, and each spends three days a week getting paid to work at the insurance company and two days in the classroom.

About two dozen students, including 37-year-old Dane Lyons, are in the inaugural class, which started in January. The program lasts two years, after which the graduates have an associate degree in business administration with insurance industry certificates.

“The cool thing is we have a chance to go to school and work at the same time,” said Lyons, who gave up his job selling cars to learn about insurance claims and underwriting. “It really trains us to have what employers are looking for.”

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Apprenticeships differ from internships in that they are employer-funded (the federal money was to help colleges and universities set them up) and more closely tied to students’ educations. Apprentices finish the programs with certificates and, in some cases, college degrees — and often with no student loan debt, a major accomplishment in a country staggering under more than $1 trillion in student loans. Employers usually pay apprentices’ tuition, and the average starting wage for a registered apprenticeship is about $15 per hour, according to the Department of Labor.

President Barack Obama pledged to double the number of U.S. apprentices to 750,000 from 375,000 by 2019. The country is closing in on 500,000.

Although the federal government, which has certified apprenticeship programs for more than 75 years, has been slow to keep up with this trend — the Department of Labor includes accordion-making and pneumatic tube repair apprenticeships among more than 1,200 apprenticeship-friendly professions, for example, but not yet cybersecurity — it has shown signs of willingness to adapt.

Companies like the idea, too. The pharmacy chain CVS hires management apprentices. A jet charter firm is seeking broker trainees. A New York City public relations agency is advertising for entry-level apprentice managers.

Employers and industry groups generally ask the Labor Department to add professions to the list, Ladd said, and revisions occur frequently — the department recently listed insurance industry apprenticeships, for instance, after Zurich asked. But it avoids adding jobs without a request being made.

“We don’t want to make the mistake of creating an occupation the industry can’t support,” Ladd said.

Obama has repeatedly noted that apprenticeships could boost the economy, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has called for more funding for apprenticeships. Republican candidate Donald Trump, of course, was the star of the reality TV show The Apprentice.

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More than 260 community colleges have pledged to give college credit for employer-funded apprenticeships, Ladd said, and major companies have started programs. Some states also are on board, too: In South Carolina, for example, a statewide initiative to boost apprenticeships through community and technical colleges attracted thousands of new students.

Advocates say apprenticeships are the perfect way to fill job openings with skilled workers while reducing the country’s overwhelming student debt. But any meaningful expansion will require changing Americans’ views of apprenticeships, said Nancy Hoffman, a vice president at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future.

“You mention apprenticeships and people say, ‘I can’t find a plumber,’ which is the upper-middle-class view of apprenticeships,” Hoffman said.

Immigrants and companies from countries with more robust apprenticeship systems sometimes are dismayed by the absence of apprentices in the United States, for blue-collar as well as white-collar jobs. It has been nearly impossible, for example, for Columbus, Georgia, fashion designer Florence Oloyede to find trained tailors for her shop because of a lack of local apprenticeship programs.

“It’s really affecting the business,” said Oloyede, who immigrated from Nigeria, where she said she trained 10 to 15 young women to sew properly. She said she has spoken to the federal government and to local colleges, but to no avail. “When people come in and don’t know what they’re doing, it’s very frustrating. All they know is how to sew in a straight line.”

As the United States inches toward more apprenticeships, their supporters say it will be important to avoid the pitfalls that have hampered success elsewhere.

In England, for example, national leaders in 2010 spread limited funding too thinly by extending apprenticeship programs to more age groups, said David Harbourne, policy and research director for the London-based Edge Foundation, which advocates for improved vocational training.

The English system — Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not had similar problems — has become unwieldy and has occasionally lost its intended focus on preparing young people for careers, Harbourne said. Both England and the United States need to show the public apprenticeships are for more than just blue-collar professions, he said.

Related: British universities reach out to the new minority: poor white males

“They’ve got to appeal to the high flyers,” he said, adding that England in particular has had trouble figuring out who could benefit from apprenticeships. “We’ve got to have opportunities for everybody to develop their talents the most they can.”

Jordan Buckle, 20, wouldn’t call himself a high flyer — he tried college but was discouraged by his bad grades — but he said he feels a lot better about his career path since starting an apprenticeship doing clerical work for the city of London two years ago.

“College wasn’t really working for me,” said Buckle, an East London native with a tongue stud and an affinity for Pokemon Go. “So I thought work was the next best thing. If it wasn’t for apprenticeships, I wouldn’t have gotten a job here.”

In Switzerland, where 70 percent of teenagers participate in apprenticeships, the system provides employers with a steady stream of trained, experienced workers, said Al Crook, the Chicago-based head of human resources business partners for Zurich Insurance’s North American operations.

“The U.S. was missing a piece of education and work training,” Crook said, noting that many entry-level claims adjusters had only a high school diploma before Zurich partnered with Harper College. “The Swiss model clearly changes the paradigm and says, ‘There’s value in getting some education.’”

The Harper insurance program, which attracted more than 150 applicants for its first 24 spots, includes basic courses such as English and math, but the education even in those classes is focused on the insurance industry. Instead of studying, say, Shakespeare in the English course, students learn technical writing that will be helpful in their career.

College representatives are speaking to other Chicago-area insurance companies about joining Zurich as partners so the school can add more students, said Maria Coons, Harper’s vice president for workforce, planning and institutional effectiveness. It can be a tough sell, she said.

“The American companies are not as well-versed about apprenticeships, so it takes a little explanation,” Coons said. “They understand the value of it, but it’s a different model than they’re used to.”

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