While apprenticeships are largely decentralized in the United States, with individual employers and industry sectors taking the lead on developing and obtaining approval for their apprenticeship programs, other nations have a unified strategy for creating, standardizing, and supporting apprenticeship programs. These countries are notable for the integration of apprenticeship programs into their education system, as well as their labor and workforce system, and for the ongoing collaboration between their government, business and industry, and their education and training providers—from their public school system to their colleges and universities.
In 2015, the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Labor, and Education signed a Declaration of Intent (or Memorandum of Understanding) with both Germany and Switzerland to facilitate greater international exchange of ideas on apprenticeships and workforce training. Similarly, some states have partnered with German and Swiss companies on apprenticeship programs for their employees in the United States. The following is a summary of best practices in apprenticeships, drawing from these existing international programs and successful programs in the United States.
First, apprenticeship programs should be fully integrated into the public education system, as is the case in countries like Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. In these countries, young people have the option to begin an apprenticeship program while still receiving their mandatory education (equivalent to high school in the United States). During this process, students receive significant counseling and advising about the advantages of pursuing either an apprenticeship or more traditional formal education (college or university), and they have the option of earning a degree—in addition to an industry certificate—while completing a more advanced apprenticeship program. The benefit of this approach is that it enables the government to cover the education-related costs of training, rather than those costs falling on the apprentice. In addition, this integration of apprenticeships into the education system enables young people to immediately begin working and earning money, which may be a financial necessity for some students and their families.
In North Carolina, Apprenticeship 2000 is an example of an apprenticeship program that is integrated into the public school system. Since its founding in 1995, Apprenticeship 2000 provides opportunities for high school juniors and seniors in the Charlotte region to complete a four-year, 8000-hour program, during which participants learn a trade like CNC Machinist, Tool & Die Maker, Mechatronics and Injection Molding Technician. The apprentices are paid an increasing wage for their on-the-job training, and they take courses at Central Piedmont Community College. Upon completion of the program, the apprentices receive an AAS degree in Mechatronics Engineering Technology from Central Piedmont Community College, a Journeyman’s Card and Certificate from the State of North Carolina, and a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Since these apprentices often begin the program as teenagers, and it is typically their first work experience, it is also important that there is flexibility in the program to allow the apprentices to change course or return to a more traditional formal education route. Switzerland is particularly successful at providing this flexibility for apprentices. Apprentices can elect to switch to an academic course of study, gaining entrance into the top universities in Switzerland, and students in academic study can pursue vocational training later on.
Zurich North America, a Switzerland-based insurance company, started a similarly-flexible apprenticeship program in the Chicago, Illinois area in 2016. Participants in this program can choose either the claims or underwriting track, splitting their time between training on-the-job at Zurich’s North American headquarters in Schaumberg, Illinois and taking courses at William Rainey Harper College. Upon completion of the program, participants receive an Associate in Applied Sciences Degree in Business Administration, a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor, and they become eligible to earn national insurance credentials. The credits from William Rainey Harper College can be transferred to several four-year colleges, enabling participants to also pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in a related or different field.
Second, apprenticeship programs should engage the entire industry in the development of the curriculum and training, so that apprentices in each occupation receive a standardized and universal training that is portable. In Germany, for example, the industry associations and trade unions work together to develop and continuously update the training curriculum, and all training, testing, and certificates are standardized by industry throughout the country. Not only does this create more mobility across companies for the apprentices, but it also addresses the employer concern of not receiving the benefit of their investment in apprenticeship programs—all industries and employers collectively pay for and eventually benefit from their standardized national apprenticeship training.
In Southeast Michigan, the Advance Michigan Center for Apprenticeship Innovation (AMCAI) provides a similar model of using the same apprenticeship training program for more than forty employers in the automotive and transportation advanced manufacturing fields. AMCAI is comprised of four community colleges that offer education and on-the-job training with employers in partnership with the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance and Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan. Because of the large number of employer and educational partners, AMCAI can reduce the cost of training people in specialized advanced manufacturing, and offer additional resources to apprentices who need additional support or services.
LaunchCode, a national computer programmer apprenticeship program, also provides industry-standardized training and screening for technology firms. Apprentices receive a 20-week training from LaunchCode before being placed with an employer, and employers cover the cost of on-the-job training and the apprentices’ wages, with LaunchCode receiving a set fee if the apprentice is converted to a permanent employee. Thus far, LaunchCode has placed nearly 1,000 apprentices with employers of various sizes across ten states, with 90% of the apprentices converted to permanent employees.
Third, apprenticeship programs should pay participants for their on-the-job training and cover the costs of their educational component, so that cost is not a barrier to any potential participant. This is standard practice among the European countries, with the government typically paying for the educational component and the employers bearing the cost of paying the apprentices and providing on-the-job training.
In Hanover, New Hampshire, Hypertherm runs a two-year apprenticeship program for CNC machine operators, during which the company not only covers the costs of the nine weeks of classroom instruction—it also pays apprentices for their classroom learning time. Hypertherm reported that paying the apprentices for the classroom time generates loyalty to the company, and incentivizes keeping the training program “short and rigorous.” Hypertherm developed the apprenticeship program with Vermont HITEC to ensure a sufficient workforce of machine operators, and after the apprentices began out-performing incumbent workers, it expanded the program to re-train its incumbent workforce of machinists.
Fourth, apprenticeship programs should offer participants a career pathway, and should be elevated to the same level as higher education alternatives. In countries like Germany and Switzerland, apprenticeship programs are an integral part of the dual education system, considered an alternative to the higher education path—not a lesser choice.
Similarly, the Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia, offers nearly 800 apprentices the opportunity to learn highly-technical shipbuilding at its parent company Huntington Ingalls Industries while attending college for free. The Apprentice School provides four, five, and eight-year apprenticeships in nineteen shipbuilding disciplines and eight advanced programs of study, and apprentices can earn a Bachelor’s degree at Old Dominion University in five to eight years, paid for by Huntington Ingalls. Each year, the Apprentice School receives more than 4,000 applicants for about 230 spots, making it as competitive as top universities, like Harvard University.