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Can Apprenticeships Work in the US? Employers Seeking New Talent Pipelines Take Note

Many American companies have made a four-year degree a default qualification for entry-level jobs, elevating an expensive university education—with a smattering of internship experience—above paths that might prepare young talent for today’s workforce better.

In a new report, Joseph Fuller, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, examines an alternative route for American teenagers and companies alike: The apprenticeships popular in many European countries. Looking closely at a successful US apprentice program in which high school students commit to work part-time while in school with the option to join the company when they graduate, Fuller’s analysis finds that three-quarters of employers wind up happy with their trainees and two-thirds of apprentices go on to college or career.

“Employers see a real benefit, and participants end up pursuing an option that is correlated with different pathways to success,” says Fuller, who is also the co-director of HBS’ Managing the Future of Work project.

Apprenticeships are rare outside the building trades in the US. Concerns abound that they pigeonhole students and consign them to jobs without much opportunity. But, as the hiring market continues to prove challenging, and employers across the spectrum commit to diverse hiring practices, apprenticeships could create a pipeline for homegrown talent.

“It raises a lot of concerns among some teachers and some parents that you are effectively tracking students, saying that some kids are just not college material, and thus contravening the script of the American dream,” says Fuller, who wrote the report along with Rachel Lipson, director of the Harvard Project on Workforce; Farah Mallah, a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education; Girish Pendse, who is pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at Harvard Kennedy School; and Rachel Snyder, a candidate for a Master of Public Policy degree at Harvard Kennedy School.

Employers have sometimes balked at the apprenticeship programs, scared off by the red tape of implementation, and concerned that the added investment to train young people may not offer enough of a return. The report, however, offers a very different picture of apprenticeships that potentially alleviates concerns of both parents and employers, focusing on the success story of CareerWise, an apprenticeship program implemented in Colorado in 2017.

College for all?

Fuller, who is faculty co-director of the Harvard Project on Workforce, says that “the US has had a rallying cry of ‘college for all’ in the last 30 years. It’s a great ambition.”

“We have this national narrative: You’ve got to go to college to make it in America. You are a non-person if you don’t. That’s telling 60 percent of kids they are failures.”

The numbers, however, tell a different story. Among all American adults, only 34 percent attended a four-year school; among 18-year-olds, that number rises to only 40 percent.

“We have this national narrative: You’ve got to go to college to make it in America. You are a non-person if you don’t,” says Fuller. “That’s telling 60 percent of kids they are failures.”

At the same time, college enrollment is on the decline, with the US undergraduate population having dropped by nearly 1.4 million students, or 9.4 percent since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset. The student debt crisis is causing more young people to think hard about the value of a four-year degree.

Apprenticeships at work

Fuller and his colleagues examined data from CareerWise with the enthusiastic support of Colorado’s then-governor John Hickenlooper. It provides encouraging evidence that for the large percentage of students who are not headed to college, apprenticeship can provide a satisfying transition to well-paying jobs in finance, IT, manufacturing, and other fields.

The majority of participants in the program begin apprenticing in their junior year of high school. Each first-year apprentice works 16 hours per week during the school year.

Fuller and colleagues tracked 232 CareerWise apprentices during 2017 and 2018 and found that of those completing the program:

  • 20 percent continued with their employer
  • 17 percent switched to a new employer
  • 27 percent left employment to attend college or another post-secondary education program
  • 22 percent returned to high school
  • Five percent were neither working nor in school

“And, they achieved those results for apprentices, while beating the benchmark for productivity reported by employers by the system often cited as the gold standard, Switzerland,” Fuller says. “The data supports that CareerWise is working for the apprentices and their employers alike.”

Since one option after the apprenticeship is college, CareerWise seems to expand participants’ opportunities rather than limit them. “It diffuses one of the knee-jerk suspicions or complaints about apprenticeship, which is that it channels people into the corporate abyss and denies them the opportunity for higher education,” Fuller notes.

How apprenticeships work best

Looking further into the data, Fuller and his colleagues found that not all students succeeded at the same rate.

  • Structured programs. Participants were 26 percent more likely to complete federally registered apprenticeships—which must meet more stringent guidelines—and were 19 percent more likely to finish if they had a dedicated supportive supervisor.
  • Some fields work better. Students were also more likely to complete apprenticeships in the financial services and IT industries, as opposed to business operations and health care. In the former fields, Fuller speculates, apprentices are given more discrete tasks that are easier to follow. That doesn’t mean that the latter fields aren’t candidates for apprenticeship, he adds, only that extra care must be taken to provide additional structure.
  • Not all students succeed equally. Students from poor families are more likely to quit in the first year of the program. Black students were also more likely to drop out than white students. Some of the disparity may have to do with Black students being less likely to apply for apprenticeships in fields like Advanced Manufacturing and IT, which have high retention rates, says Fuller, who suggests more targeted guidance and outreach to shrink the gap.

In recent years, CareerWise has begun to expand, with new programs in cities including New York and Washington, DC, as well as rural locations in Indiana and Michigan. Despite some caveats, Fuller says that the initial data provides justification for a wider acceptance of apprenticeships, and promising evidence they can be a viable new pathway to a bright future.

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Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at hbswk@hbs.edu.

Image: iStockphoto/sturti



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