Travis Horton, SVP Utility Training Services and Apprenticeships
This year we celebrate the 85th anniversary of the National Apprenticeship Act, also known as the Fitzgerald Act. In the early 20th century, it established apprenticeships as a means of supporting workers in the skilled trades. The act’s value still resonates today in thousands of registered apprentices in skilled trades across industries like energy, construction, healthcare, manufacturing, and technology. However, with nearly 6 million workers currently unemployed—and employers, workforce organizations, or hiring agents searching for skilled labor—we see a clear gap that questions how apprenticeships are valued in America.
Historical And Cultural Perspective
Apprenticeships have been training workers for as long as civilizations have been building empires. While the term “apprentice” did not appear in modern vernacular until the Middle Ages, for many generations it was the only way to pass on knowledge of the arts and trades from person to person.
The concept itself is simple: a master or journey-level worker would take on someone with little to no experience and commit to training them. This would typically involve a written agreement making the apprentice an indentured servant for an established time in exchange for their education. Until the rise of medical schools and law schools, even doctors and lawyers would learn their craft by apprenticing under a master. Some of history’s most influential people like Leonardo De Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison were all apprentices at one time.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor reported just over 593,000 active apprentices representing only 0.4% of the 164.36 million people in the U.S. civilian labor force.1 While apprenticeships in America are beginning to rise in popularity, they saw a large decline in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the cost of training employees and more automation in the workforce. In comparison, northern European countries have not seen this historical decline. Germany and England are both vastly smaller in population but have more active apprentices than the United States, with England at more 900,000 apprentices and Germany with 1.3 million.2
The Value Of Apprenticeships
As we look at career and growth opportunities today, too few people in the United States understand apprenticeships and the true value they offer employees as well as employers.
With a national employee turnover rate that averaged just over 47% in 2021, employers have found themselves scrambling to fill vacant positions.3 On the other hand, the retention rate of workers who retain employment after apprenticeship completion is 93%. The average starting salary after an apprentice completes an apprenticeship program is $77,000, which is comparable to the median salary of a graduate with a master’s degree. In fact, apprenticeship graduates earn $300,000+ more over their lifetime compared to those who don’t pursue a registered apprenticeship.4
As an educational path, apprentices “earn while they learn.” Unlike in colleges and universities, where many students and families struggle financially, apprentices get paid a comfortable wage while they learn—with many companies even providing benefit packages. Additionally, 65% of employers with apprenticeship programs reported that over 70% of their apprentices completed their apprenticeships while nearly half of them reported with over a 90% completion.5 Comparatively, colleges have had a history of troubled success rates. Recent data shows up to 40% of students don’t finish college with 24% dropping out before the end of their freshman year.6
In addition, investments in apprenticeships also benefit taxpayers. Increased spending on apprenticeship programs is more than offset by higher tax revenues and reduced spending on public assistance programs and unemployment insurance.7
In general, apprenticeships have strong bipartisan support from the public and from political parties, but gaps remain in public perception and equal provision.
For example, in 2018 the federal government spent $149 billion on higher education.8 Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Justification Employment and Training Administration with the United States Department of Labor reported that apprenticeships and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) received a little more than $2 billion.9
Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 to support the expansion of registered apprentices, create nearly 1 million new apprenticeship opportunities and to encourage employer participation and recruitment for individuals with barriers to employment. If passed in the Senate and signed into law, this act will invest $3.5 billion over 5 years to expand apprenticeship opportunities.10 Even as political support continues to grow, some employers wonder if it is enough to fill gaps in the labor workforce.
Filling these gaps requires changing public perceptions about skilled labor, that somehow these careers are less meaningful, less fulfilling, or less reputable.11 According to the Brookings Institution, many cultural stumbling blocks may contribute to this stigma. These include misperceptions that apprenticeships “are only an option in the trades,” “require a labor union to be registered,” and “have lower social status than a college degree.”12
The Path Forward
As we celebrate 85 years of the National Apprenticeship Act, we recognize the history of apprenticeships and their impact on industries throughout our nation. We equally acknowledge the value of apprenticeship programs and college degrees that provide successful careers and educations to hard-working men and women who make up the backbone of the American workforce. Your deliberate effort will help expand cultural support for apprenticeship programs. Join with Northwest Lineman College and similar organizations to promote apprenticeships as an equal and honorable pathway to successful, rewarding careers in the trades.
Celebrate National Apprenticeship Week November 14th-18th
- U.S. Department of Labor. “Registered Apprenticeship National Results Fiscal Year 2021.” DOL.gov. www.dol.gov/agencies/eta/apprenticeship/about/statistics/2021
- Fortwengel, Johann (2018, Nov. 21). “Apprenticeships in America: four ways to get the country to take them seriously.” The Conversation. www.theconversation.com/apprenticeships-in-america-four-ways-to-get-the-country-to-take-them-seriously-106822
- U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS.gov. www.bls.gov
- U.S. Department of Labor. Apprenticeship.gov. www.apprenticeship.gov
- Lerman, Robert, et al. (2009, Mar.) “The Benefits and Challenges of Registered Apprenticeship: The Sponsors’ Perspective.” The Urban Institute Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population. www.urban.org/research/publication/benefits-and-challenges-registered-apprenticeship-sponsors-perspective
- Hanson, Melanie (2022, June 17). “College Dropout Rates.” Education Data Initiative. educationdata.org/college-dropout-rates
- House Committee on Education and Labor (n.d.). edlabor.house.gov/download/national-apprenticeship-act-reauthorization-of-2021-fact-sheet
- USAspending Data Lab. “Federal Investment in Higher Education.” usaspending.gov/colleges-and-universities (as cited in Lake, Rebecca (2022, Aug. 30). “How Colleges Make Money.” Investopedia.com. www.investopedia.com/how-colleges-make-money-5199835)
- U.S. Dept. of Labor Employment and Training Administration (2022). “FY 2022 Congressional Budget Justification.” DOL.gov. www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/general/budget/2022/CBJ-2022-V1-03.pdf
- U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor (n.d.). Fact sheet on National Apprenticechip Act of 2021 (H.R. 447). edlabor.house.gov/download/national-apprenticeship-act-reauthorization-of-2021-fact-sheet
- Fadulu, Lola (2017, Nov. 15). “Why the U.S. Fails at Worker Training.” The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/11/why-the-us-fails-at-worker-training/545999/
- Goger, Annelies, and Sinclair, Chenoah (2021, Jan. 27). “Apprenticeships are an overlooked solution for creating more access to quality jobs.” Brookings Institution. brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2021/01/27/apprenticeships-are-an-overlooked-solution-for-creating-more-access-to-quality-jobs/