Apprenticeships – What, Why, & How

Pam Sornson, JD

Emerging technology is advancing the American economy in complex and comprehensive ways, and the country’s industrial foundation is struggling to keep up with the changes. Not only are tried-and-true skill sets being rendered obsolete, but resources for upskilling and retraining the workforce are few and far between (at least, so far). Employers needing workers capable of managing the convoluted realities of newly automated systems and workflows are hard-pressed to find them in today’s post-pandemic labor pool.

The situation has triggered a renaissance in work-based learning and on-the-job training programs, with a growing emphasis on apprenticeships. Even the federal government is funding access to and provisioning of these ‘learn while you earn’ opportunities because of the unmatched growth opportunities they represent for the country.


The What: Apprenticeships Built America

The practice of developing a workforce ‘on the job’ springs from European feudal origins, and its success as an economic driver embedded it into early North American society as a valuable industrial tool. An apprentice signed on with a ‘master craftsman’ (any tradesperson willing to take on the responsibility of the teacher/trainer role) for up to seven years, learning how to do the work as well as the nuances of its business and administration. When complete, the new ‘journeyman’ tradesperson was free to open a new business under their own name. Benjamin Franklin (printing and publishing) and Paul Revere (silver smithing) both began their careers as apprentices, which underscores how the practice developed not just skills but also skilled business people and leaders.

While its usage dropped off over time with the rise of schools, colleges, and ‘higher education’ options, the inherent value of an apprenticeship remained and is rising again as the current economy struggles to find needed talent in its insufficient and often un-trained (for today’s needs) labor pool.  Nowadays, an apprenticeship is just one of several avenues learners can pursue as they face a sometimes overwhelming array of job and career decisions. For many, the position offers the exact right level of training, work experience, and occupational freedom.


The Why: Traditional Education Resources Lack Occupational Focus

The data tells a straightforward story about why on-the-job training is so valuable to so many business owners and their apprenticing staff. A recent Burning Glass study reveals that ‘traditional’ higher education offerings no longer provide or sustain the increase in personal growth and wealth that they once did. An analysis of over 60 million survey responses was stark in its findings: as many as 45% of all college graduates were underemployed ten years after their graduation, a factor that calls into question whether the learning they received was worth the tuition they paid. It suggests that the education provided through the standard high school-to-college process doesn’t also provide the lifestyle those learners seek.

Employers these days are also aware of the skills gap that exists within the college-based talent pool they’re seeing compared to the skill sets they need in their enterprise. Consequently, they are increasingly looking for ‘skill-based’ resumes, not ‘degree-based’ schooling, as they seek to fill the millions of open job positions that dot the nation. The hiring system, however, isn’t yet designed to connect businesses with this population of technologically savvy workers who don’t carry the credentials necessary to attain many of today’s technology-based jobs.

Learners, too, are aware that a straight-up college education might not provide them with the lives they wish to live. A study by the non-profit Educational Credit Management Corporation shows that while half (51%) of today’s high school students are considering going to college, that number is a full ten percentage points lower than it was before COVID-19 hit in 2020. And, of those young respondents, two-thirds (65%) believe that occupational training and learning ‘should’ be done on the job, through internships and apprenticeships, not through traditional college attendance.

The flood of technology into all aspects of the work world has ramped up the demand for well-trained digital technicians, many of whom couldn’t or didn’t develop those skills through traditional college courses or programs. Without those credentials, these learners struggle to find work even though they actually have many of the precise skills that are in such high demand. Schools seeking to maintain enrollment numbers must figure out how to capture and credential these future workers if they intend to remain relevant and profitable.


The How: Colleges as Apprenticeship Incubators

In response to these developments, colleges are now ramping up both their technical skills training programs as well as their partnerships with businesses willing to mentor apprentices. By doing so, they are expanding their roles within the economy by providing three foundational services within the apprenticeship and workforce development sector:

As a training provider: On-the-job skills often flow from and integrate with occupational theory; students learn how their emerging skill set advances occupational or corporate goals. Schools have the resources needed to offer this type of cerebral education, while corporate partners provide learners with hands-on, in-the-shop experience.

As a broker between tradesperson and apprentice: The demands of running a business frequently override a business owner’s opportunity to find an appropriate apprenticeship candidate. When working together, the school and the company can define skills, talents, and other relevant work-related criteria that the school can use to attract and direct an appropriate talent pool of potential apprentices.

As an administrator of a formal apprentice development practice such as the Registered Apprentice Program. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees this workforce development strategy that connects future workers with both the training and the employers they seek. As a ‘registered’ apprenticeship, the role guarantees an optimal educational experience that provides the precise scope of training activities and modules needed for the occupation, including:

structured on-the-job instruction designed for the specific job at hand;

supplemental training and education designed to address the needs of the employer and their company;

a safe place to learn while working;

industry-based skills that are currently in demand, and

the credentials needed to find, land, and succeed in the job or career of the learner’s choice.

By stepping into any one of these three roles, today’s colleges are addressing workforce development demands head-on, assisting both their students and their neighboring businesses to succeed in these challenging economic times.


The country is struggling to find the well-trained workforce it needs. Today’s colleges are embracing their role as ‘workforce developers’ and are rising to that challenge. They are reinventing themselves as full-service labor force training grounds that provide all varieties of learning opportunities, not just campus-based theory and academics.


Apprenticeships – What, Why, & How
IIJA in Action: California’s Expanding Workforce
AI in Education: Addressing Obstacles to Open Opportunities