More Apprentices Needed

New Trump effort hopes to have more workers hearing, "You're hired!"

By Alex Chediak Published on June 12, 2017

The White House is calling this Workforce Development Week. On Tuesday, President Trump will join Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for a tour of Waukesha County Technical College. He’ll also sit down for a discussion with local business owners, teachers and apprentices. On Wednesday, Trump will deliver a major policy speech on workforce development. He’s also expected to discuss his ideas for working with Congress on college affordability. And on Thursday, Ivanka Trump will host a roundtable with President Trump, administration officials and several governors to discuss workforce issues.

Some 6 million jobs are currently unfilled — the highest figure since the 1980s. Labor Secretary Acosta notes that 95% of CEOs are having trouble filling vacancies. One solution is to boost apprenticeships. “They’re proven, they’re effective, and our intent is to expand the apprenticeship program broadly and to scale it up,” Acosta said.

About half a million students were in registered apprenticeships in 2016. That’s a blip compared with the 17 million students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs. But while about 70% of students in bachelor’s degree programs take out loans, about 40% of undergraduates fail to graduate in six years. Many of the 40% who failed to graduate are among the 70% that took out loans. In fact, high debt is a major reason why students drop out of college.

Why Apprenticeships?

Apprentices, by design, earn as they learn. The Department of Labor’s website says that the average starting wage for an apprentice is about $15.00 per hour. This figure rises over the course of the apprenticeship to an annual figure of about $50,000. That’s about the same as the average pay for 2017 college graduates. Programs last from one to six years, but the majority of programs take four years.

Apprenticeships commonly work on the idea of a private-private partnership. Companies team up with technical schools to find and train quality workers. The tricky part is getting the private sector to foot the bill. After all, it’s cheaper for companies if colleges do the training (and screening) of applicants.

Encouraging Apprenticeships

But if companies are having trouble finding good workers, maybe they should do more of their own training? Perhaps the negotiator-in-chief can help. What if Trump offered tax breaks for companies hiring apprentices? Or block grants to non-profits like CareerWise Colorado, which aims to enroll 20,000 Colorado students in apprenticeship programs by 2027? Or expanded the Federal Pell Grant program to support apprenticeships? The bully pulpit alone could probably bring more companies to the table. (And it’s not like Trump is a stranger to the “Apprentice” concept.)

We need to get away from thinking that a bachelor’s degree is the right fit for every student. Those in the skilled trades deserve equal respect.

There’s also the public perception issue. When parents, high school teachers and K-12 school boards hear “apprenticeships” they picture young men covered in grease or dirt — future mechanics, plumbers or carpenters. And they fear young adults not earning a marketable degree.

While apprenticeships are historically more common in the skilled trades, that’s not the whole story, says Scott Carlson. “Apprenticeships in white-collar work, like insurance and information technology, can be found among traditional apprenticeship offerings in manufacturing or the trades.” Colleges could certify that apprentices have mastered certain math, science, programming or writing skills along the way. The apprentice could complete their on-the-job training while earning an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.

A Bipartisan Issue

The expansion of apprenticeships is a bipartisan issue. This was something President Obama championed, for example, in his 2014 state of the union address. The number of apprenticeships grew by 75,000 in the next two years — a more than 15% increase. In Chicago, Mayor Emmanuel has been promoting apprenticeships. Chicago’s City Colleges have set up programs with major employers like financial services giant Aon. And in the suburb of Palatine, Harper College’s apprenticeship program has teamed up with Swiss insurance carrier Zurich.

We need to get away from thinking that a bachelor’s degree is the right fit for every student. Those in the skilled trades deserve equal respect. After all, we depend on them for paved roads, indoor plumbing, working electricity and much more. But we also need to expand our thinking about education. Since lack of work experience is a common complaint from employers hiring college graduates, we should welcome new ways to boost in-class learning with on-the-job training.


Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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