Governing magazine reports on state governments’ experiments with apprenticeships, a focus of AWB Workforce Summit

Washington’s strong economy presents unprecedented employment opportunities, with 740,000 job openings expected over the next five years. As we wrote in our 2017 foundation report update, (more here) most of them will be filled by workers with a postsecondary credential or some college. 

Increasingly, the majority of jobs in Washington will be filled by workers with a postsecondary credential (such as a technical or industry certificate, apprenticeship, or degree). Today, just 31 percent of Washington high school students go on to attain such a credential by the age of 26. The mismatch between workforce readiness and job openings hampers our collective ability to take advantage of the potential economic growth that lies ahead.

The benefits for both society and the people gaining the required skills are substantial.

Postsecondary education pays off for individuals. In 2015, median annual earnings for a full-time worker with a bachelor’s degree were 66 percent higher than those of a worker with only a high school diploma.

The implications of increasing postsecondary attainment for society are also dramatic. BCG estimates that in a typical high school cohort of 81,000 students, 70 percent postsecondary attainment means 31,000 more students will earn a credential each year. Each will earn nearly $1 million more over his or her lifetime. Collectively, their success will reduce unemployment by a third and poverty by nearly half, saving our state billions of dollars a year in social spending.

Governing magazine reports that state governments are exploring apprenticeships as a strategy to address the skills gap (that mismatch between workforce readiness and job openings). 

The skills gap is part of a larger labor shortage that states and their companies are trying to address. With aging baby boomers retiring, companies are looking for the next generation of workers. About 53 percent of job openings are “middle skill,” requiring less than a four-year degree but more than a high school education. That includes blue-collar jobs like carpenters, plumbers and electricians, but also positions like dental hygienists, paralegals and nurses. Only about 43 percent of the current labor force fits that description.

A growing number of states are turning to apprenticeships … as a potential solution to their labor shortages, especially in rural areas where it can be hard to attract new workers. Of course, apprenticeships have existed in certain trades for millennia. But today there’s a new interest in strengthening and expanding these kinds of programs. American businesses employed 358,000 apprentices in 2011; last year, that number increased to 505,000. And states are adding apprenticeship programs to a slew of new jobs — not just in manufacturing and construction, but also in nontraditional fields such as banking, cybersecurity, accounting, health care and even some niche jobs.

We encourage you to read the article, which goes into some detail about how these programs are being designed and promoted, as well as some of the challenges they face. And there’s also concern about the objectives and message being delivered.

American apprenticeships suffer a sort of identity crisis. Proponents often trip over how to describe them in relation to higher education: Are these part of someone’s eventual path to a four-year bachelor’s degree, or are they a cost-effective substitute for college? 

…It’s a fine line for governors to walk. In the United States, “there’s a culture of wanting your child to go to a university,” says Sager of the National Governors Association. “Part of [governors’] message is that you do have other possibilities, that it doesn’t cut you off from a longer-term plan to pursue a degree, but in the short term, you’re not only receiving an education, you’re also receiving valuable job skills while not accumulating student debt.”

What states are trying to do now is involve community colleges in providing the classroom training, so apprentices still receive an academic credential. An apprentice in manufacturing, for example, might also complete the program with an associate’s degree in applied engineering.

AWB president Kris Johnson was among those joining Gov. Inslee on a trip to Switzerland to learn more about apprenticeship programs geared to 16-19-year-olds. He wrote,

In the Swiss system, young apprentices can easily shift career paths or seek higher education after earning their initial training diploma. It’s focused on options and opportunities – right after graduation and into the future. I heard from several young people who said they were “finished” with the classroom by ninth grade and eager to work with their hands.

The big-picture goal is to find specific ways to improve Washington’s career pathways.

AWB’s March 21 Workforce Summit will be headlined by a leading apprenticeship proponent. It’s a timely conversation.