Building a Future: The Benefits of Entering an Apprenticeship Program

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In fall 2016, 20.5 million students attended American colleges and universities, including 6.3 million in community colleges. My nephew, Sam, is one of them. Sam enjoys socializing through social networking apps, wants to have an impact in this world and also, like many of his peers, does not have an interest in an apprenticeship program or a trade industry.

In fact, nearly 90 percent of high school graduates say they’re not interested in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) career or a STEM-based trade. Half of all young people who start an apprenticeship training program do not complete it, and the number is even higher for those from disadvantaged communities.

Without a specific career plan, Sam entered community college wanting to stay away from the “hard math and science-based courses” and chose an “easy course load” of liberal arts requirements. Sam assumed getting a college degree, no matter the subject, would guarantee a middle-income life. When I asked Sam why he didn’t want to pursue a trade apprenticeship program, he said he worried about the low pay. Sam, like many, assumed he must go to college, even without a plan.

National education statistics, however, suggest a different outcome for many post-secondary students: Forty percent who go to four-year colleges and 64 percent who attend community colleges never earn their degree.

Yet the positive reasons to pursue a career in the trades is overwhelming. Trade pay is comparable to, sometimes better than, some professional work. Research from Georgetown University has revealed that 24 percent of technical certificate holders make more than the average B.A., while 30 percent of associate’s degree holders earn more than the average four-year college graduate. The same study found this salary benefit lasts 20 years in a career field.

In addition, jobs in the trades can’t be outsourced, and demand is growing. Job growth in the trades is expected to increase 10 percent over the next decade, outpacing most other careers. Trade training is also cheaper and shorter than traditional education. A college student graduating in 2016 owed on average more than $37,000 in student loan debt whereas an apprenticeship graduate’s debt load is on average $10,000. The evidence is so overwhelming that Forbes Magazine identified construction laborer as one of the best starting jobs for young people.

Some of this evidence is not new and yet, apprenticeship programs aren’t seeing growth in attendance. When I talk to Sam about apprenticeship work, he is skeptical and remains driven by a belief that a four-year college degree is his only real educational choice.

Trade-based apprenticeship programs have started to take note of these apprehensions. Many have begun to align recruiting efforts and programs around strategies that resonate with young people, including:

  • Offering a variety of skills trainings young people can use throughout their working careers. Realizing the community was facing a 30 percent shortfall in electrical apprentices, the Santa Clara County (California) Joint Apprenticeship Training Center (JATC) has developed marketing materials focused on the “greening” and increasing technological sophistication of the electrical industry. Included in the rebranding is adjusting course content to not only train apprentice electricians on how to install new energy-saving systems but also how to act as salespeople and educators to help building owners understand the payback on their investment. "We not only teach how to install the light, but our apprentices learn how to train the people who are using the light to make it work efficiently," training instructor D.J. Siegman said.
  • Offering supportive services during apprenticeship programs that support regular communication and mentorship. Another JATC in San Diego created a 40-hour prescreening boot camp to provide young people with the basic readiness skills necessary to progress through the screening process to be accepted into an apprenticeship program. Seventy-four percent of attendees have been accepted and completed an apprenticeship program. The boot camp builds a team mentality as the participants go through the apprenticeship program that lasts throughout their careers.
  • Supporting flexibility in identifying career paths. Understanding that young people want variety, 18 electrical JATCs in California have adopted the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) Pre-Apprenticeship Training Model. MC3 provides training and assistance to expand candidate aptitudes to enter into registered apprentice programs, assume increasingly greater levels of employment responsibility, compete in the employment marketplace and increase their skill set in the process.  

Construction trade apprenticeship programs have been facing labor shortages in many communities for years. Strategically aligning marketing strategies with young people’s interests in technology, their community, individual mentorship and ongoing support may pique the interest of many for whom a two- or four-year college path may not be possible.

Mark Ouellette is a principal at ICF and has spent the last 19 years designing, implementing, managing and evaluating career technology education, youth development, and energy efficiency training programs.

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