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Q&A With CAEL: Apprenticeships — Benefits for Workers and Strategies for Program Designers

Over the past several decades, the missions of CAEL and the American Council on Education (ACE) have intersected often with a common focus on helping postsecondary institutions better support today’s learners. As part of that focus, both organizations recognize the critical need for institutions to better align learning and work, opening doors to new career pathways and economic mobility. In particular, CAEL and ACE are both engaged with postsecondary partners to advance apprenticeship models that incorporate work-based learning and earning-while-learning structures.

In this Q&A, two experts from CAEL and ACE share their perspective on benefits of the apprenticeship model and the resources and strategies needed to develop apprenticeship programs for today’s students.

How do you define an apprenticeship program, and what are the most important components that differentiate an apprenticeship program from a typical job-training program?

Matt Waltz: There are specific requirements for what are called registered apprenticeship programs. They must feature a paid job with wage progression, on-the-job learning, classroom learning, mentorship, and portable, nationally recognized credentials [note: see federal definition here]. With registered apprenticeships, a key benefit is the broad recognition throughout the industry. For example, for someone who completes a registered apprenticeship to be a plumber, it doesn't matter if you work for employer A or employer B, you're going to come out with the same standards and the same industry recognition.

Lisa Ferris-McCann: Registered apprenticeships are governed under the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeships and 29 CFR § 29.1. All the rules and regulations can be a little cumbersome to navigate without assistance. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources that can help an organization establish a registered apprenticeship.

There are three basic models for delivering apprenticeship programs, which are competency, time-based, and hybrid. We don't see a lot of the time-based models anymore. That's the more traditional approach where you spend x number of years in your apprenticeship. More and more, we're seeing competency-based and hybrid models so you can track progress throughout the course of the apprenticeship pathway.

How do apprenticeships benefit employers and workers?

Ferris-McCann: I think the benefits are multifaceted, because with apprenticeship programs, they're meeting the workforce gap in ways that we have not been able to do in the past. That gap existed prior to COVID, but it's more apparent now. We've got an excess of 10 million jobs that are standing vacant because we don't have the qualified personnel to fill them. Apprenticeship programs allow workers to fill that workforce gap while also learning on the job and in the classroom. Apprentices earn a recognized credential that is portable, which creates the opportunity to shorten their time to other academic credentials.

We've also discovered that employers are engaging more and more with higher education partners to help cultivate those academic pathways so they can upskill and reskill workers even beyond the apprenticeship positions. Employers are beginning to go to higher education and say, “This is what my employees have learned during their apprenticeship. Can you award credit for that on-the-job and apprenticeship training, and then provide a pathway for my employees to get to the next position?” And when you recognize on the job training, and credit for prior learning, students are 38% more likely to complete. From the perspective of higher education, these models help them connect with a new student population. It's a win-win all the way around.

Waltz: Apprenticeships can also be a great way for employers to recruit new workers. A prospective employee starting through an apprenticeship program has a better sense of what they're getting into, as well as guaranteed pay. They know exactly what the wages are going to be and how and when they might increase. They know the education and credentials they're going to be receiving. It's all laid out versus going and getting hired by an employer outside of an apprenticeship and wondering, "Am I going to get a pay increase this year? Are they going to invest in me as an employee to educate me?"

What are some of the challenges that exist for apprenticeship programs?

Waltz: As an employee going into an apprenticeship, you're looking at a lot of requirements. You may have to test into the program. You probably need a high school diploma or equivalent. And it's a commitment. You have to go to classes, you're going to have homework, you have to pass tests or otherwise show that you're performing and progressing. Classes might be outside of your standard work hours, so you might face child care challenges, you might have to deal with transportation issues, and it might intrude on your free time. But you also have to realize it's a short-term investment for long-term benefits.

From the employer’s perspective, I think one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to schedule the training components. Is this something that individuals are going to do outside of their traditional work time? Or are they potentially doing it during their shift, which would take them off the production schedule? Employers also have to have the staff available to track the progress of the apprentices in order to fulfill federal reporting requirements. And then there are questions around how to pay for it all.

Ferris-McCann: I agree there can be challenges, but there are resources available, for instance, through Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and other sources to help with child care and other issues that might surface not only for the employer, but also for the employee.

Apprenticeship programs are very complex so our audience, which, in addition to employers, includes workforce boards and postsecondary institutions that may be very interested in what role they could play in supporting an apprenticeship program. Can they be the intermediary with employers or is a different kind of intermediary needed to make all of these pieces and parts come together?

Ferris-McCann: I wouldn't recommend that anyone navigate an apprenticeship program on their own. There are a lot of moving parts! But, as I noted previously, there are several resources that are available. There are apprenticeship training representatives who are available at both the federal and state level that can help throughout the process, and there are people involved in related technical instruction (RTI) who can also help. There are a number of additional resources both at the federal and state level that can help you navigate that 29 CFR and make sure that you're in compliance — meeting the standards that you need to meet. The good news is that the regulatory part of it is very heavily front loaded. Once you get off on the right foot, once the apprenticeship program is up and running, maintaining the standard is not as difficult as building it in.

Waltz: A dedicated workforce intermediary can offer more specific help for industries and employers. That intermediary could be a workforce board, it could be a college, it could be a community-based organization, but it has to be somebody that can dedicate staff to focus on apprenticeships so that they don’t get lost among other areas of that organization’s focus.

Ferris-McCann: WIOA formula funds can be utilized by workforce boards for apprenticeships, but there are times when that funding formula may not fully cover what is actually needed, so securing a workforce or higher ed partner may be a better course. The funds come to that organization, and then it can manage things from there. To clarify, WIOA funding is available to apprentices via workforce development boards (WDBs) at local (states, cities, counties) levels. Students in an RAP and attending college in a degree program are eligible for funds via WIOA. The funds available are for "support services." These are services such as child care and transportation. It is vital that to be eligible for WIOA funds, a student associated with a college degree program must be in a RAP. There are other programs; however, we are especially talking about RAP. Apprentices in RAPs through WIOA are eligible for these funds. Because a RAP is partnered with a college degree program, this opportunity benefits these apprentices/students.

Now, regarding other funding sources: The Office of Apprenticeship (U.S. Department of Labor) has been providing grants to a variety of organizations, including states, various NGOS, colleges, and universities. These grants are to increase participation in RAPS and lower operating costs for the organization. Some even offer a stipend to apprentices.

Waltz: One other important point to mention is that while apprenticeships are great opportunities, not every job seeker is ready for them. That's where pre-apprenticeship organizations, which could be a K-12 institution or a technical college, can provide valuable services in getting somebody connected to a registered apprenticeship. Under WIOA, to be a recognized pre apprenticeship organization, you need to have direct connections to a registered apprenticeship.

We talked about how these are complicated programs involving lots of different moving parts. Complexity can translate to costs — what are some things people should keep in mind about the expenses of building and running an apprenticeship program?

Ferris-McCann: I think a key area of uncertainty is startup costs. It's like any other startup project where you incur additional costs that you had not anticipated. Once the program is up and running, then you tend to have a pretty stable cost level. Another variable is how involved your apprenticeship program is going to be. If it's going to be a one-year program, that's very different from one that’s going to be seven years long.

Waltz: In terms of specific cost categories, on the front end, there are very obvious costs: the education, depending on who's paying for that, and then the wages — with wages being not only for the work week but sometimes also for the instructional hours. Other costs for the employer include staffing needed for tracking student progress, reporting, and coordinating with the education providers. And then there are those ancillary costs for somebody who's in school, whether it's child care, transportation, books, tutoring, or other supportive services. Your model will need to have some personnel focused on meeting reporting requirements, and it could be very beneficial to have a coach or navigator who is constantly in contact with the apprentices to provide needed support.

One additional employer cost that is often forgotten is the requirement to create a sponsoring committee. If you're a sole employer, you might be the only entity on that. But it could also be a joint committee that has multiple employers, and those individuals have to meet, they have to discuss the standards, they have to approve the apprentices.

Ferris-McCann: Funding for this work can be very helpful. For example, the costs of tutoring and other support services can be mitigated if you're partnering with a college or university or a training center. That's another really good reason why if you're going to start an apprenticeship program, start it with some sort of training provider, don't try and go it alone. You could, but obviously then you're shouldering the entire burden when partners may already have resources in place that the employer can tap into at very minimal cost.

Matt Waltz is vice president of partnerships for CAEL. Prior to joining CAEL, Matt spent ten years managing local, state, and federal workforce programs at the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/BIG STEP.

Dr. Lisa Ferris-McCann is director of academic integrity and quality at ACE. Lisa's expertise and experience is informed by both faculty and staff roles and includes adult learning, community college leadership, military-affiliated learners, and program development.

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