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Q&A With CAEL: Apprenticeships for Today and the Future

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 discuss new horizons for apprenticeship programs, including ways in which employers, education providers, and workforce development agencies are developing apprenticeship programs in new industries that can benefit from the work-and-learn model. In this discussion, Matt Waltz (CAEL) and Lisa Ferris McCann (ACE) are referencing registered apprenticeships, which feature a paid job with wage progression, on-the-job learning, classroom learning, mentorship, and portable, nationally recognized credentials.

Traditionally, when you think of apprenticeships, they're about skilled trades. But that's really started to change in recent years. Can you talk about some examples of occupations or industries that have been successful at adapting apprenticeships? And what are some industries where maybe you haven't seen apprenticeships, but are probably good candidates?

Matt Waltz: I think generally, when you say apprenticeship, people think of skilled trades like machinist, welder, plumber, and electrician. Those are the things that come to mind. But we're seeing apprenticeships in new spaces. Technology is a big one, including software developer, cybersecurity analysts, and biotechnology. We're also seeing apprenticeship interest in financial services professions, early childhood education, and health care professions like dental assistant and community health worker. And, in sort of a sign of the times, we're seeing apprenticeship programs develop in organic farming and the cannabis industry. We should also note that within that traditional manufacturing environment, we're seeing new positions that can involve an apprenticeship path, such as diesel mechanic and avionics technician.

But what I'm equally excited about is CAEL’s current work exploring how apprenticeship models could help move workers who are in traditional manufacturing jobs into higher-level engineering positions, or apprenticeships that can move LPNs or CNAs towards being a registered nurse. The Department of Labor recently awarded grants under its Apprenticeship Building America program. One of the components of that was modernization of apprenticeship. So I'm really excited to see what comes out of that.

Lisa Ferris-McCann: When it comes to new apprenticeship models, what attracts me are two things. First, there is a greater recognition of competency-based credit (as well as credit for prior learning), given that many apprenticeship programs are themselves based on a competency model. That’s why it can be important to have higher education partners who recognize those competency-based credits and are able to crosswalk them over to other types of degrees and credentials. That's where some of the upskilling opportunities Matt mentioned can come in. The second thing is employers recognizing the value of connecting apprenticeship to higher education for the purpose of employee retention. Employers are becoming very engaged in a dialogue with higher education around what they can do to craft pathway programs that will assist workers while creating new student pipelines for higher ed.

Lisa, can you talk about the Apprenticeship Pathways project that you've been working on at ACE, especially relating to credit for prior learning (CPL) opportunities?

Ferris-McCann: We were fortunate enough to secure a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to identify apprenticeship programs, review them for credit recommendations, connect with partner colleges that would begin the groundwork of a national transfer agreement for those credits, and how this can address workforce upskilling and reskilling needs. In phase one of the project — we are starting phase two shortly — we reviewed 11 apprenticeship programs such as construction trades, software engineering, cybersecurity, insurance, client relationships, and health care. We impacted about 17,000 apprentices during the course of those evaluations, and we were able to identify, from both the work-based learning and the curriculum-based instruction, 40 credit hours of vocational credit, 290 hours of lower division credit, and 24 hours of upper division credit (lower division typically is first and second year baccalaureate, upper division is third and fourth year baccalaureate).

When we talked to our workforce partners, number one, they were very excited about the fact that the credits could be portable, and not just tied into one college. And second, they were very excited about the opportunities for upskilling and reskilling pathways.

One of the big lessons from this project so far is that the world of education is shifting away from, “You need to spend three hours in my classroom once a week for 15 weeks to get this credit.” Now it's not necessarily so much the time you spend but the quality of the instruction and evidence of learning. And that's where I go back to the competency-based model, because a lot of the apprenticeship work is based on competencies. There has been a lot of movement in higher ed to accept the translation of those competencies into what we would typically look at as traditional college credit. I'm just going back in my own history, because 20 years ago, there's no way that we would accept competency. Back then, it was, “Sorry, if you didn't take it at a college, we don’t count it.” That's really changing, so that's good news.

Matt, can you describe some of the partnership work CAEL is exploring around apprenticeships and credit for prior learning?

Waltz: Similar to some of the work that Lisa and ACE are doing, we're looking at taking incumbent workers, who often already have been at that employer for many years, and providing an apprenticeship program that upskills them into a new position. Part of this model involves recognizing prior learning. The engineering apprenticeship is a great example. Workers on a machine shop floor know blueprints, they know the equipment, they know tolerances, they know a lot of the math that goes into it. Realistically, they probably have a year of that engineering apprenticeship or degree already under their belt through that experience. Credit for that prior learning means that they're going to complete that apprenticeship more quickly. It's going to be less of an expense to them or the employer, and it's going to increase their wages more quickly. We’re thinking about these kinds of issues when we're looking at registered nurses or some of the other new apprenticeships that are being designed. There's a big role for credit for prior learning.

Ferris-McCann: You're speaking my language, because that's what we do. We look at apprenticeship programs exactly for that, to identify those credits. But one of the other things to be mindful of — and registered nursing is a perfect example because that is a nationally licensed field —is that you also have to consider the views of and standards set by overseeing accrediting bodies. In the case of nursing, they ensure that the registered nursing program is to the standard of the national licensing board.

What we are focusing on are those hard-to-hire areas where there isn't a shortage of skilled workers, but rather there's a failure to recognize the existing skills of available workers. So the question we are asking is, how do we get the recognition for that on-the-job training or that skills training that they may have, wherever they got it, so that they can move forward?

When you think about the role of the federal or state governments in providing support for apprenticeship programs, are the incentives sufficient right now to encourage these kinds of developments?

Ferris-McCann: We need to support strategies to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act that would update the 1937 version and provide new funding. There are a few states that are doing some phenomenal work in apprenticeships — states like Colorado, Wisconsin, Washington, and North Carolina. But if we can pass the National Apprenticeship Act, we will have resources available that have not been available to this point.

Apprenticeship programs should get the same kind of attention and investment from the public sector and employers that colleges and universities do today. The return on that investment is great: people complete apprenticeships with little or no debt and begin earning an average salary of $70,000. And for employers, the retention benefit is also great — ninety percent of the time, they are still with their employer after three years, so the retention is there. There was a study done in Canada -- in some respects, our neighbors to the north are a little ahead of us -- and it's probably 10 years old now, that showed that for every dollar that was invested in an apprenticeship program, the return was $1.49. There is an incredible opportunity. And I'm hopeful that we're going to seize it.

Waltz: In the meantime, there are a lot of funding opportunities that are out there right now. Along with Apprenticeship Building America (referenced earlier), the Good Jobs Challenge under the U.S. Economic Development Administration included several proposals for apprenticeships - five of them were recently funded.

What should postsecondary institutions keep in mind about apprenticeships?

Waltz: I wish more colleges understood that an apprenticeship isn’t their competition — it’s not an alternative to education. In fact, apprenticeship requires a formal education component, so there's actually an opportunity to design more and new apprenticeships that will directly involve colleges. Colleges can use apprenticeships as an opportunity to expand beyond associate degree or bachelor's degree options to a broader concept of valued and recognized credentials. Not everyone needs to start their educational journey with a bachelor’s degree, but just about everyone needs some kind of postsecondary credential that helps them access new employment opportunities and career paths. Apprenticeship programs can be part of a progressive and connected set of program offerings.

Ferris-McCann: One thing that we have been learning from our workforce partners is that, more and more, employers are not interested in whether or not someone has a degree. They're interested in whether or not someone has the credential(s) necessary to succeed. That was quite a little bit of an enlightenment to our college partners, because we are wired in higher education toward degree completion. And if you're looking at higher education now, it's not that they're deemphasizing degrees and certificates, but they are providing alternative pathways to get students whatever they need to take that next step, knowing that if they provide it, students are going to come back to add on to their learning. So it's an interesting time to consider the postsecondary institution’s role in these new models.

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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