What makes an apprenticeship an apprenticeship?

This blog post was written by Kristin Wolff of Social Policy Research Associates.

In a word, quality.

Last week, Social Policy Research Associates (SPR) participated in the international convening of innovators and researchers working to launch, build, and scale apprenticeship programs – INAP, the International Network on Innovative Apprenticeship. Sponsored by Urban Institute, the American Institute for Innovative Apprenticeship, and the Swiss Embassy, the event brought together representatives of dozens of countries to share ideas and experiences.

Skills-building & Signaling

Apprenticeship is the original training program. It’s how we learned to master skills before there were schools, training providers, or workforce development systems. In the last decade, owing to a rise in youth unemployment, the increased cost of a university education, a dearth of workers with technical skills and a host of other reasons specific to geography, industry, or occupation, apprenticeship has emerged as an unlikely workforce innovation (and not just in the U.S.).

Although it seems strange that this most ancient of training models would need to begin with a definition, that’s precisely what INAP experts pointed to as a critical need. The reason has to do with how apprenticeship credentials function as currency in different environments.

When a student earns a university degree, it signals something to employers – persistence, some level of skill mastery, the ability to function in an institutional environment, and so on. But when a student completes an apprenticeship, its signaling power is limited – largely because a widespread understanding of what apprenticeship entails is missing in countries other than Switzerland, Germany, and a handful of others with model programs. Moreover, much of the work of expanding and scaling apprenticeship is occurring in sectors and occupations where the model is new – cyber security, childcare, the creative industries, and so on.

That’s why getting clear about what apprenticeship is matters so much where industry, education, and policy leaders want to turn apprenticeship into a key strategy for boosting skills and building careers.

Modernizing Apprenticeship

SPR has been working in the area of apprenticeship for some time now. Taking the best of the old – what we know works in apprenticeship as it has been practiced for centuries – and applying it in a new context isn’t always easy. To keep ourselves in check, we’ve evolved a working definition and a set of principles. We’ve been using them informally, but now that we know how many of us are working through these definitional issues, we thought it might be time to share them as a contribution to the broader conversation.

Theory and Practice

In concept, apprenticeship is simple – it’s an approach to skills development that combines coursework or classroom instruction with paid work-based training in partnership with employers. In practice, it’s a little more nuanced. Apprenticeships can be registered at federal or state levels, or not at all. They can be sponsored by employers, labor unions, colleges, or other intermediaries. They can be combined with certificates, credentials, and high school or college credit, or none of these.

Many of the projects we’ve worked with come to apprenticeship as an idea without even realizing that it is, in fact, a structured model for building skills. Our job is to make the formidable journey from idea to implementation easier.

Five Principles

In SPR’s technical assistance practice, we have made quality the defining element of apprenticeship and developed the following principles to guide our work in the field.

  1. Apprenticeship helps students achieve a level of mastery tied to industry standards and evidenced by time, competencies, or some combination of both. As a matter of law, regulation or custom, in many existing programs, a certain number of on the job training hours (2,000 each year over one or more years) plus classroom instructional hours (over 144+) are required for an apprenticeship program. In programs designed for industries or occupations with no tradition of apprenticeship, a competency-based approach is more common. The latter allows apprentices to demonstrate existing skills and evidence existing knowledge throughout their apprenticeship and typically shortens the process. Many firms use some combination. There is no one right approach so long as the training and skill building is serious, well-supported, and intended to build mastery in a skilled trade, profession, or occupation. (And that doesn’t happen overnight.)
  2. Employers are deeply engaged in the design and delivery of apprenticeship programs and in hiring apprentices. Employers host and manage apprentices – who are employees – so it makes sense for employers to be engaged in recruiting up-front (even if this is not always the case). Employers provide mentoring – an essential component of apprenticeship. Mentors help apprentices apply the skills they learn in the classroom during their work-based training, provide the tacit knowledge that turns apprentices into skilled professionals, and provide access to the social and professional networks within companies and professional communities. Finally, employers define the skills and competencies that need to be taught in the classroom and modify them as they change. The relationship between employers and training providers, intermediaries, or sponsors around quality apprenticeship programs is substantive and meaningful.
  3. Apprenticeships are structured, but in a wide variety of ways. This makes them highly flexible but also places demands on employers and sponsors – you can’t just procure apprenticeships.
    • Training (Related Technical Instruction or the equivalent) can be offered by community colleges, labor unions, technical schools, private vendors, universities, or other best-fit providers.
    • Training can be provided in a classroom or online, in an intensive way or over time, and should lead to industry-recognized certifications or credentials, and –ideally – converted into credit that can be applied toward a degree.
    • The sequencing of classroom instruction and on the job training can vary – coursework can occur prior to work-based training, or the two can be offered concurrently or on an alternating schedule.
  4. It takes a (wise) village. Although employers play essential roles, they will likely require considerable administrative and other support – especially smaller employers or those working together on a common program. That’s why colleges, labor unions, workforce agencies, industry associations, sector partnerships and other intermediaries are such important stakeholders in the process – especially in sectors new to apprenticeship. Designing and developing apprenticeship programs; training mentors; tracking skills, hours, and competencies; and conducting assessments are all areas where intermediaries can help. Intermediaries can also play important roles in connecting employers to tax and other incentives such as training and wage subsidies. However, because intermediaries are typically public-sector or charitable organizations (or funded by them), they also bear responsibility for insuring that the public interest is advanced through programs that make use of public or philanthropic resources.
  5. Registration makes apprenticeships “real” for apprentices. Not all apprenticeships are registered – and unregistered programs can offer good value to employers, industries, and apprentices. Since we are in the early days of building an apprenticeship system in the U.S., there is much to be gained by engaging with unregistered programs and sharing effective practices. However, we believe in registration as a goal. Registration signals the kind of commitment and quality that students, parents, workers, and policy makers can understand, and moves us closer to the kind of system that offers a real alternative to strictly academic pathways for many students and workers.

The U.S. has about 410,000 apprentices today (compared to over 20 million enrolled in public and private colleges and universities). We’re just getting started. Let’s do it right.


Thanks especially to Leela Hebbar, Vinz Koller, and Jessie Oettinger at SPR, Michael Bernick and the many apprenticeship champions at the U.S. Department of Labor, Mathematica Policy Research, Urban Institute, Franklin Partnerships, New America Foundation, Jobs for the Future, and the California Community College system – especially the Chancellor’s Office and Foundation and the California Apprenticeship Initiative-funded projects that have informed our thinking on the subject of apprenticeships over the past several years. We welcome your feedback and continued engagement.