Quick. What do both parties agree on? That’s right. Almost nothing. But apprenticeship is a rare area of bipartisan agreement. Governors from both parties have worked to increase the number and diversity of apprenticeship programs. On Capitol Hill, there are bipartisan bills aimed at strengthening apprenticeship. The current administration and the last administration agree on little else, but both have endorsed apprenticeship.
Even with clear political support, no one had asked what the American public thinks about apprenticeship. To close that gap, New America worked with Lake Research to survey over a thousand people on how they perceived these programs. What we found was what politicians already seem to know: apprenticeship enjoys significant bipartisan support. Not only that, Americans agree apprenticeship should have additional government funding.
Eighty-three percent of respondents supported increased government funding to support apprenticeship. That’s about the same percentage of Americans that admire scientists and firefighters. And that support crosses party lines. Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans favor additional spending on these programs.
A majority of respondents also believe that apprenticeship is the best way to prepare for a career. But here the story gets a bit more complicated. When asked what they would recommend to a child in their life who was considering what to do after high school, only a quarter said they would recommend apprenticeship while almost half said they would recommend a four-year college.
There is a disconnect between what Americans think is good for other people and what they believe is good for those closest to them. But we suspected people had a certain picture in their mind when they heard the term apprenticeship. A picture of blue collar jobs, something other than college, that would not facilitate career progression for students who chose that path.
We wanted to dig deeper. To do this, we conducted focus groups in Charlotte and Denver. In these focus groups, it became clear that while older people associated apprenticeship with blue collar jobs, younger people associated it with people in business suits. And parents and students were much more likely to embrace apprenticeship if there was a clear connection to and through higher education. They liked that apprenticeship offered experience and hands on learning. They liked that it was a postsecondary experience that was affordable and relevant to the job market. But they wanted to know that it would open more options not limit them. That is why they were focused on being able to build on the experience over time. And, because of this focus, the issues that caused concern included “credits may not transfer,” or “the number and type of fields were too narrow.”
These findings reinforced our belief that, for apprenticeship to expand beyond a relatively narrow set of occupations, it must be more tightly connected to the higher education system. To facilitate this, we recommend in our recent paper that the government:
- Create common and connected definitions. Congress should create a special class of student who is also an apprentice and a special class of postsecondary academic degree that includes the core features of apprenticeship. Congress can then include these definitions in relevant legislation and data sets throughout the federal government. This will allow us create policy to support and scale these types of programs.
- Expand registration agencies. Congress should also develop a process for expanding the definition of “Registration Agency” to include state education agencies that meet a set of established criteria. Those criteria should include formal recognition from the U.S. Secretary of Labor, demonstrated capacity to verify the standards of apprenticeship laid out in the National Apprenticeship Act, and demonstrated capacity to collect and report performance data on apprentices and apprenticeship programs.
- Increase financing. To finance expanded apprenticeships, Congress should create an annual discretionary grant program, possibly using H-1B Visa funds, to support the development of Degree Apprenticeship programs. Grants would fund partnerships among employers and/or industry associations, institutions of higher education, and other intermediaries. Additionally, they should expand and reform the Federal Work-Study program to allow funds to cover the tuition and fees of “student-apprentices”.
Americans believe apprenticeship deserves more government support. They believe that it does an effective job preparing people for the labor market. With some policy change, we can begin to scale it and connect it to higher education. This will make apprenticeship an accepted way to gain a postsecondary education but without the debt or the uncertainty about job prospects upon completion.