Industry-recognized apprenticeships officially end next week. What’s next for modernizing the federal system? Also, two policy experts on how to make apprenticeships more equitable, and Work Shift’s new Guide to Understanding New Collar Apprenticeships.

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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Future of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeships

Raytheon Technologies rolled out the country’s first ever industry-recognized apprenticeship program in October 2020 — a move hailed by the administration at the time as a major milestone in expanding apprenticeships and creating more job opportunities for American workers.

Two years later, the entire federal program is dead.

The Biden administration paused it shortly after taking office, and the official end arrives next week. Only 130 or so of the programs, mostly in healthcare, ever got off the ground — so there aren’t a lot of lessons to draw from the initiative itself.

But the problems it aimed to solve — and the debate it kicked off about the role of government and industry in modern American apprenticeships — are still highly resonant. “It’s good to be talking about IRAPs again because it really is an instructive policy discussion, even though we’re in a massively different situation now,” says Michael Prebil, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Education & Labor at New America.

Industry-recognized apprenticeship programs, or IRAPs, were controversial from the get go. The stated aim was to cut “red tape” and let companies register programs more quickly — but critics saw an end run around quality standards and organized labor.

Introduced by the Trump administration, the programs were not directly approved by the Department of Labor or most state apprenticeship offices but by third-party organizations, such as industry associations, community college systems, and nonprofits. Those “standards recognition entities” had to get federal authorization and were intended to function something like accreditors do in the higher education system. Congressional Democrats and others worried about quality control and a lack of requirements, such as mandatory wage increases for workers, that are included in the federally registered program.

“If you want to start a high-quality and in-depth training program, thoughtful, impactful program design takes effort and there’s really no way to regulate that away or make a policy change that changes that,” says Deborah Kobes, interim vice president of the Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning at JFF.

Structural Challenges: Whether they liked or loathed IRAPs, experts pretty much universally agree that the registered apprenticeship system in the United States is clunky.

Companies and other organizations can register apprenticeships directly with the Labor Department or through state apprenticeship agencies, many of which have distinct requirements and processes. Either route is time intensive.

Robert Lerman, a researcher who’s spent much of his career studying apprenticeships, thought IRAPs had the potential to cut down on red tape and delays in the system. As it is now, he’s seen companies wait as long as nine months to get approval in some states, even with experienced intermediaries offering technical assistance. At a minimum, he would have liked IRAPs to have continued long enough — and with enough funding — to have had real evidence of the model’s impact.

“The big lesson learned is that we need to do things on a more bipartisan basis, because there is broad acknowledgment that there are structural issues with the registered apprenticeship system that make it less effective than it might otherwise be,” says Lerman, an institute fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.

Beyond Registration: Getting a program registered, however, is just one of many challenges of running an apprenticeship in the United States. And it’s probably not the biggest issue.

The industry-recognized program, Prebil says, got rid of a lot of standards to only make registration somewhat faster.

“IRAPs made it marginally easier to register your program through another entity,” he says. “But you still have to recruit, still have to put together a training program, still have to run it. Systems that make it easier to do all of those other things are what’s really critical.”

Design, Recruit, Run

Other countries can be instructive. Most of those with more robust apprenticeship systems have three things in common:

  • A flourishing market of intermediaries that provides technical assistance and often operations support to companies. France, for example, has a well-established system of apprenticeship training centers that work with local employers, public agencies, chambers of commerce, and unions.
  • Consistent, dedicated funding for apprenticeships. The United Kingdom, for example, introduced a levy on large businesses to provide stable funding for its system about five years ago, and Australia recently expanded wage subsidies and other incentives for employers.
  • Regular audits of program quality and outcomes measures. The UK has independent final assessments for apprentices and a rating system for programs that allows for underperformers to be terminated.

“My view is we put a lot of boundaries into the up-front registration process and not nearly as much into the end-point assessment,” Lerman says. “I’m not saying the typical apprenticeship graduate doesn’t know what they’re doing. But we just don’t measure it.”

Frameworks and Funding: Lerman has proposed that the feds introduce such measures, along with a series of competency-based occupational frameworks that companies could agree to follow in exchange for faster approval. Even with such guardrails in place, experts agree more consistent funding for quality program design and implementation would be needed.

Grant funding in more recent years has helped with that, Kobes says. State expansion grants in 2020, for example, focused on the systems support needed to grow and diversify apprenticeships. And the $171M awarded this year for apprenticeship “hubs” is fundamentally about building out capacity for design and implementation.

That funding is helping to both modernize the system and grow the intermediary market, which Work Shift writes about in a new Guide to Understanding New Collar Apprenticeships out this week.

Supporting Players: Nonprofit intermediaries like Apprenti, JFF, and Philadelphia Works are major players. Apprenti, for example, was recently awarded $23.5M from the Economic Development Agency to help 11 regions across the country develop and diversify their local technology workforce.

And third-party companies like Multiverse and OpenClassrooms — which got their start in Europe — are making major pushes into the American market. Multiverse works with employers like KPMG, Microsoft, and Verizon, and OpenClassrooms just inked a deal with Merck.

In many communities, local intermediaries — chambers of commerce, other business associations, and community colleges — play a powerful role in aggregating small and midsize employer interest and connecting them with solutions. To continue to diversify and build out the apprenticeship system, Kobes says, more federal and state funding needs to be targeted to that work.

The Kicker: That’s the fundamental thing that IRAPs got wrong, she says.

“Designing and building a quality program that has the value that will really pay off for the worker and the employer over time — that’s a lift,” Kobes says. “And we should be supporting the effort it takes to do that, rather than just saying that’s hard and let’s not require it.”

Equity in Apprenticeship

Women only accounted for about 13% of apprentices last year, and they were concentrated in lower-paying fields. Similarly, Black Americans were fewer than 8% of apprentices, though they are 13% of the workforce. The lack of representation is equally pronounced among youth apprentices, many of whom start their apprenticeships while still in high school.

Policy makers, business leaders, and worker advocates are hoping to change that. Recent apprenticeship grants from the Labor Department have focused heavily on equity and reaching communities that have been underserved by apprenticeships. And, more broadly, apprenticeships have played a prominent role in the government’s plans for an equitable recovery.

Thus far, the work of diversifying apprenticeship has been slow — though there have been improvements in the past decade, including among youth apprentices. Experts at the Center for Law and Social Policy write in Work Shift this week about how to increase the pace of change.

Cameron Johnson, who served as a research assistant on the education, labor, and worker justice team, and Emily Andrews, that team’s director, make recommendations in three broad areas:

  • Prioritizing program goals that promote equity.
  • Promoting equitable access, recruitment, and placement.
  • Ensuring fair compensation.

They write, for example, that programs should have clear goals around equity and that they should offer wraparound services, such as childcare, transportation, and physical and mental healthcare, that make it easier for a wide range of workers to participate.

The Kicker:

“With inflation outpacing wages, workers — particularly those who earn low wages, those from communities of color, and women — need all the support our nation can muster,” they write. “Apprenticeships are a key strategy for putting them on a career path toward economic security.”

Open Tabs

Funding Apprenticeships

The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on how federal funds can be used to develop and expand career pathway programs, including registered apprenticeships. The announcement was part of a broader rollout of a White House initiative to increase and expand access to high-quality training programs, including $5.6M in Perkins funding for a new program to expand work-based learning opportunities.

Shorter Paths

Open jobs in Colorado exceed college degree production in several industries, including healthcare, business, engineering, and IT, according to a report from Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders. The group offers suggestions for improving alignment between postsecondary education and industry, Jason Gonzales reports for Chalkbeat Colorado, including by creating shorter pathways for students.

Childcare Crisis

More than 100K Americans missed work last month because of childcare problems, an all-time high, Abha Bhattarai reports for The Washington Post, citing federal data. Children’s hospitals nationwide are at capacity, largely because of a surge in respiratory viruses, while daycare centers and schools are struggling with staffing shortages. Meanwhile, worker productivity has plunged deeply this year.

Lackluster Results

Virginia has invested more than $17M over five years in the New College Institute, which was created to offer education and job training. Yet many of the promised training options disappeared, according to an investigation by the Martinsville Bulletin, while “NCI spent millions on salaries and programs that offered little payoff.” For example, a cloud computer program lasted only a year and didn’t lead to jobs for participants.

Career Connection

Braven, which seeks to help students from low-income backgrounds make the transition from college to strong first jobs, has received an $11M gift from MacKenzie Scott. The nonprofit said it aspires to reach at least 40K students in the next decade. The gift from Scott will help Braven speed the pace of growth, including expansion to HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions, while developing its data infrastructure.

Education Benefits

While 61% of healthcare employers offer college tuition reimbursement programs to their workers, only 11% see these benefits widely used by employees, and just 8% say employees are aware of the programs, according to a new report from the Josh Bersin Company. Reskilling people from a wide range of roles, both in healthcare and beyond, could fill a third of the nursing roles in a projected U.S. gap of 2.1M nurses by 2025.

This week’s newsletter was a Work Shift takeover. The Job will be paused next week for Thanksgiving, although Paul may send one on Black Friday if something big happens. Thanks for reading. — Elyse Ashburn

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.