Community Colleges Can Play a Critical Role in Apprenticeship Expansion

Blog Post
March 7, 2022

In late February 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) announced $113 million in grant funding for its Apprenticeship Building America program, which aims to expand registered apprenticeships to more industries and increase the number of apprentices from underrepresented groups, including women and people of color. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequities in the United States, and a key task before us is building an inclusive economy in which everyone can connect to high-quality employment, particularly people who were economically marginalized even before the pandemic. The Biden Administration is focused on this goal, and clearly views registered apprenticeships as a tool to help accomplish it.

Apprenticeship programs combine on-the-job training under the supervision of a mentor with more traditional classroom learning, which community and technical colleges often deliver. The on-the-job training and classroom learning are meant to reinforce one another, ensuring apprentices acquire valuable skills needed by specific employers as well as knowledge applicable to the industry as a whole. Apprentices earn a paycheck from Day 1, with wages rising as apprentices master more skills. This earn-while-you-learn model of career preparation makes apprenticeships debt-free pathways into good-paying, in-demand fields, and can offer real economic opportunity and advancement. According to USDOL, 94 percent of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship program retain employment, with an average annual salary of $70,000.

Despite the promise they hold, apprenticeships remain rare in the United States and are mostly found in the building trades. While apprenticeships are on the rise in fast-growing industries like health care and information technology, an important barrier to this expansion is the lack of systematic involvement of higher education institutions, since postsecondary credentials are often needed for career advancement in many fields. For example, in the field of nursing, licensed practical nurses can become registered nurses by earning either an associate or bachelor’s degree. Nursing also requires significant on-site, hands-on learning, lending itself well to the apprenticeship model. Better connecting apprenticeships to our higher education system would allow more students to gain a foothold in their chosen fields while pursuing the postsecondary credentials needed to advance in those fields—that is, they wouldn’t have to choose.

To be sure, colleges are already involved in apprenticeships in a variety of ways, like providing classroom instruction and developing curricula. Yet some colleges have taken on larger roles in delivering apprenticeships by serving as apprenticeship intermediaries. Apprenticeship intermediaries perform a number of leadership and coordination functions, from working with employers to establish apprenticeship programs to recruiting apprentices to connecting those apprentices with supportive services. Given policymakers’ interest in expanding apprenticeships in the U.S., what would it take for more higher education institutions, particularly community and technical colleges, to serve as apprenticeship intermediaries?

Serving as intermediaries may be a more intensive role than colleges are used to, but institutions like Harper College and Trident Technical College are leading the way and demonstrating how this can be done. At Harper College, located about 30 miles northwest of Chicago in Palatine, Illinois, apprentices earn either a certificate or associate degree from the college along with a certificate of completion and proficiency from USDOL. Harper performs a variety of tasks in delivering apprenticeships, including assisting with recruiting apprentices and providing each apprentice with a dedicated student success coach to help them complete their program.

Trident Technical College, with campuses across South Carolina’s low country, serves as an intermediary for both adult and youth apprenticeships. High school students can become youth apprentices in a range of fields, including manufacturing, cybersecurity, and health care. Youth apprentices finish their programs with a high school diploma, a postsecondary certificate from Trident that can later be put toward an associate degree, and a certificate of completion from USDOL. In addition to providing classroom instruction, Trident recruits apprentices and connects them to supportive services, promoting better outcomes and program completion. Trident’s leadership on apprenticeships is thus deeply linked to its role as an apprenticeship intermediary.

Community colleges serving as apprenticeship intermediaries is still new and rare, but in many ways they are well suited to take on this role. They educate and prepare people for careers in a variety of fields, meaning they could help expand apprenticeships beyond construction. Community colleges enroll many students from historically marginalized groups, including people of color, people who are low-income, and people who are the first in their families to go to college. By serving as intermediaries, community colleges could make apprenticeships more widely available to people who have traditionally lacked access to them. This would give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a path into well-paying careers in fields like health care, IT, and engineering, among many others. Many community colleges also offer supportive services that apprentices can tap into to help them complete their programs, such as academic, career, or mental health counseling, transportation assistance, and child care.

Playing a greater role in delivering apprenticeships would be no small task for community colleges, and more study and thought leadership is needed to assess the challenges that would come with this shift and develop recommendations to address those challenges. Community colleges have a number of missions; they deliver a variety of education and job training beyond apprenticeships and also prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions. They often operate with limited resources for all the hats they wear. Serving as apprenticeship intermediaries may require community colleges to operate and allocate resources differently, and policymakers may need to build the capacity of colleges to take on this role.

Thanks to generous funding from Ascendium Education Group, our team at New America is launching a two-year project to surface leading community college apprenticeship intermediaries, identify factors and resources needed to be successful, document best practices, and develop a set of recommendations to inform state and federal investment related to community colleges’ role in the American apprenticeship system. Stay tuned for future briefs, blog posts, and events to share our findings as we seek to better understand community colleges’ work to facilitate and expand apprenticeship opportunities.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!