While popular in other parts of the world, apprenticeships have failed to take hold in the United States, accounting for just 0.3% of the labor force, with much of that in the construction trades. But with more Americans questioning the value of traditional higher education, “earn-and-learn” models such as apprenticeships are becoming more attractive. CareerWise Colorado has created a program based on a successful Swiss model, which aims to increase the number of pathways to high-paying jobs—whether by sticking to apprenticeships or returning to education. The Project on Workforce, a cross-Harvard initiative focused on policy and research at the intersection of education and labor markets based at Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, studied CareerWise’s program to explore key drivers of retention and completion. Following the journey of 232 apprentices in the CareerWise program, their new report—“The Options Multiplier: Decoding the CareerWise Youth Apprentice Journey,” whose authors include Harvard Business School Professor Joseph Fuller—finds that 64% of participants transitioned to employment, postsecondary education, or both, offering multiple pathways for youth and a high return on investment for employers. We spoke to Rachel Lipson MPP 2018, the co-founder and director of the Project on Workforce, about the report’s findings and the value of the apprenticeship model.
Q: What do you think are some common misconceptions about youth apprenticeships?
The report’s title is actually a reference to one of the major misconceptions out there about youth apprenticeship: this isn’t an “alternative” pathway that rejects college, it can truly be an “options multiplier.” Americans tend to think that there’s a stark choice between choosing a technical path or pursuing a conventional four-year college experience. The CareerWise program, along with all of our work at the Project on Workforce, rebuffs that premise. We think that the U.S. education system must prioritize college and career, not college or career. It’s critical that career-focused education is not perceived as a lower-tier, less desirable option for struggling students. But unfortunately, this is what a lot of people think and that’s the narrative that programs like CareerWise are pushing against.
What’s made more complicated in the United States is that we don’t come from a tradition of apprenticeships being viewed that way. People hear apprenticeship and they think only of trades like construction or carpentry. Yet apprenticeships are starting to grow in tech, in healthcare, business operations, and finance. That’s been the case in Europe for a long time, but it’s only just starting in this country. Perception problems are often worse in the United States because of our history of racial tracking in education. Too often, predominantly low-income students of color are channeled into dead-end programs that lead to bad jobs.
If you step back though, the reality is that basically all American high school or college students could benefit from more exposure earlier to the world of work and careers. One way to think of an apprenticeship is as a super-charged internship. The employer is committed to paying you increased wages over time and dedicating capacity to your growth, and the work is better integrated into what you’re learning in the classroom. Being able to test out what kinds of jobs you might like and gain paid work experience—that’s good for everyone.
“We think that the U.S. education system must prioritize college and career, not college or career. It’s critical that career-focused education is not perceived as a lower-tier, less desirable option for failing students.”
Q: Why do you think it’s important to understand what leads to successful apprenticeships?
We’re at this moment when the American Dream is showing cracks. Harvard colleagues at the Opportunity Insights initiative have found that while 90% of children born in 1940 grew up to make more than their parents, today that number is only 50%, even though over that same time period, college attendance rates have increased substantially. It’s very clear that what we’ve been doing by just saying, “Just focus on going to college and everything else will work out”—I think that’s clearly not working. We see the strands of this too in the public debate about college debt forgiveness. Millions of Americans are weighed down by unsustainable debt levels at the same time that 40% of recent college graduates are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.
One problem is that the American postsecondary system wasn’t really built for today’s learners, who are increasingly diverse by race, socioeconomic status, and age. Many need to work while enrolled. Many are caregivers for children or family members. Successful apprenticeship models can directly address a lot of the ways the system is failing—you can make a living wage, build professional connections, social networks, and attachment to employers at the same time that you’re enrolled and gaining credits.
Too many Americans get lost along the pathway from high school into family-sustaining careers, and the data seems to show it's only gotten worse after COVID. At the Project on Workforce, we’ve been focused on the transitions between education and work. What makes them smooth? How can we build better on-ramps and off-ramps in between? What’s interesting about CareerWise is that it actually bridges high school and college and employment—it’s addressing one of the big breaking points on the school to career journey where people drop off after 12th grade. We need to understand not just whether models like this one work, but also, why and how. The operational insights about program design and implementation will be critical if we are to scale the lessons to the country at large.
Q: Have any of the findings from this research surprised you?
First, how effective these apprentices can be. Even in year two, apprentices are already rated between 70-75% productivity of a traditional full-time trained employee. These 17-year-olds really can do the job if they’re given the right resources.
Second, the reasons why people leave. We looked at the first two years of CareerWise cohorts, and 39% of the apprentices who started completed the full three-year program. Off the bat, that does not sound great, right? While there was significant variation across industry type, increasing that headline number is important if the program is to maximize return on investment for employers. But the number one reason that apprentices leave is because they’re pursuing other educational opportunities. If young people ultimately decide they want to focus on college full-time, I think we should view those cases as success stories too.
Q: What is the most important thing you would want students and employers to take away from this research?
For students, I think it’s that it doesn’t have to be either/or between getting work experience and going to college. You can do both and it can pay off for you. Through apprenticeships you can lower the cost of college attendance, lower your debt, and increase likelihood that you’ll be able to land a job after college.
For employers, I’d emphasize the productivity and management findings. Hiring a youth apprentice can make sense even as a relatively short-term investment. If high school-age apprentices can execute on the job at 70% productivity levels, they are delivering value to the firm at fairly low salary costs. There is a business case even if they eventually leave. Additionally, apprentices who said they had a really good supervisor were much more likely to stay in the program. So how do we train and equip our managers and corporate cultures to be welcoming of young talent, especially young people of color?
Image credits: CareerWise