Workforce Development

U.S. Apprenticeship Programs: Closing the American Skills Gap

At ALEC, we believe in market-based solutions to society’s most pressing issues, but we also recognize the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to close the American skills gap. The U.S. Department of Labor has hosted the National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) since 2015 to promote NAW programs. These programs are designed to equip employees and future leaders with the technical skills and relevant knowledge required to succeed in their industries.

At our 2020 States and Nation Policy Summit this past December 2-4, we were pleased to hear from our ALEC members, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) among them, and their vigorous commitment to reduce the work force development shortage through NAW programs.

ABC has excelled at recruiting, educating and upskilling the leaders of tomorrow even when the economic outlook does not look promising. Despite the economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 recession, 40% of ABC member contractors are still hiring even when many construction projects have been downsized. ABC estimates that 550,000 additional construction positions will be injected into the U.S economy, and its apprenticeship program will focus on preparing and adapting their human capital to meet today’s demands, disrupting the construction industry. ABC employs cutting-edge learning models like just-in-time task training, competency-based progression and government registered apprenticeships to combine classroom training with compensated relevant work experience.

As the election excitement fades away and Americans become more disenchanted with the electoral process, policymakers are turning their attention to economic recovery amid a global pandemic. NAW programs have never been more critical to this end since they integrate career seekers and unemployed Americans into the workforce and foster lifelong learning and careers. Policymakers can improve these programs by bringing a more market-based perspective into apprenticeship programs.

On October 29th, 751,000 people have applied for jobless claims. Even though this number has been declining, policymakers face major challenges to accommodate these many Americans into one of the most precarious economic environments in the last decades. Millennials and GenZs are struggling in this poor economic environment, but the misalignment between their college education and companies’ demands seem to be a bigger concern. Bryan Caplan from George Mason University raises a very controversial argument against the U.S. education system.  Dr. Caplan is skeptical of K-12 education, and he argues that the current education system tends to be ineffective because “very little learning takes place in formal education.” For Caplan, going to school does increase your earning but only because it signals that students have gone through rigorous academic curriculums that presumably increase skills. But this is not the case according to Caplan.

Apprenticeship programs overcome this barrier by offering public and private leaders the opportunity to reduce this skills gap and guaranteeing that most employees secure a job position after culminating the program. After the program, 94% of participants are hired, and their average starting salary is $70,000. Most positions do not require college degrees which incentivizes people without college degrees to enroll. This is the perfect opportunity for laid off workers who want to acquire on-demand training, academic education and get paid at the same time. And, most importantly, aspiring candidates have an array of options to choose from, ranging from private companies such as Amazon and Floyd’s to public ones such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These programs might not be a panacea for the COVID unemployment resurge, but they have proven to be life savers for many, including veterans, women, and minority groups.

Developing effective and resilient apprenticeship programs has also occupied a top priority for ALEC state legislators’ agendas. Governor Larry Hogan has invested $2.8 million to assist Maryland businesses and organizations implementing apprenticeship programs and increasing the number of registered apprentices by 35%. Senator Arthur Orr from Alabama introduced Senate Bill 295 enacted on May 31st, 2019. This bill was created to align apprenticeship programs with the U.S. Department of Labor requirements. All these efforts by ALEC members have paved the way for more robust apprenticeship programs, mitigating worker shortages in high demand industries.

The question lies on how can these apprenticeship programs be used to further address the pandemic induced rise in unemployment? The U.S. Department of Labor has taken a great first step: bringing together employers and career seekers. Now, it is up to market players to find an equilibrium. The less government interference to this dynamic, the better.

The U.S. DOL has partnered with the Urban Institute to create “a voluntary, consensus-based Competency-Based Occupational Frameworks (CBOFs) to help employers and sponsors develop, and apprenticeship officials evaluate, new apprenticeship.” However, every apprenticeship program is different and cannot be evaluated using the same framework. Even though CBOFs are voluntary, the framework undermines the heterogenous component of each apprenticeship programs. The U.S. DOL should not be establishing one-size-fits-all frameworks, but let each employer design their program based on their local knowledge and needs. Trying to impose a top-down approach will only reduce the effectiveness and success of these programs.

Apprenticeship programs not only encourage skill development and lifelong learning and careers, but also close the gap between school and work. The benefits of participating in these programs are plentiful, and policymakers can enhance them by not interfering in the program design, and let people on the ground use their local knowledge that best suits their needs.

In Depth: Workforce Development

American businesses are increasingly worried about the quality of the workforce pool from which they will be hiring. Too few American students are graduating high school or college with the skills employers need. And while college is a pathway to career success for many students, it’s far from the only…

+ Workforce Development In Depth