Ramping up apprenticeships

John Ladd, apprenticeship administrator at the U.S. Labor Department, provides an update on federal apprenticeship efforts during AACC's Workforce Development Institute. (Photos: Matthew Dembicki)

SAN DIEGO — Efforts to increase the number of apprenticeships in the U.S. are yielding results, according to federal officials.

The U.S. added a record 238,549 apprenticeships in fiscal year 2018, surpassing the 191,563 created in FY17 and 206,020 in FY16, according to John Ladd, apprenticeship administrator at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), who shared the figures during the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Workforce Development Institute (WDI).

That’s promising, but more are needed to help prepare students, incumbent workers and others for available jobs in this strong economy, he said.

“We’re not going to fill that gap unless we scale up dramatically,” Ladd said, noting that the Trump administration wants to create 5 million new apprenticeships over the next five years.

Revving up the effort

DOL is ramping up its efforts to hit that mark. It’s currently implementing the recommendations from the federal Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion (on which AACC President Walter Bumphus served with representatives from business, industry, labor, education and public officials), and it’s partnering with AACC on a just-announced initiative to add 16,000 new apprentices by working with community colleges and businesses.

“Community colleges have a natural seat at the table for this work,” Ladd said.

The federal government is also investing more in apprenticeships. It appropriated $160 million to apprenticeships in fiscal year 2019, up from $145 million in the previous year, Ladd said. He expects more federal investments in partnerships that will help grow, diversify and scale up apprenticeships.

The administration also wants to raise awareness about apprenticeships as a work-based education option, Ladd said, noting that many people still think only of traditional registered apprenticeships. To that end, DOL this year will launch a publicity campaign to make the public and businesses more aware of apprenticeships, he said. That too was a recommendation of the task force.

DOL also recently opened a new online portal, apprenticeships.gov, that features an apprenticeship finder to help link potential apprentices with available slots. Currently, there are 25,000 open apprentice opportunities nationally listed at the site, Ladd said. 

In addition, the site will soon include wage information across different jobs, careers and industries. It also could potentially help pair businesses and community colleges and even post curriculum. 

Problems with awareness, academics

There is a lack of awareness about the value of apprenticeships, agreed Lee Worley, executive director of apprenticeships and training at Ironworkers International. Unions are struggling to find enough workers to fill available slots. 

Part of the reason is that U.S. high schools offer dramatically fewer trade and career education opportunities for students, Worley said. As a result, fewer students know about career options in those fields. He noted that the average age of an apprentice in construction is 28. When he was an apprentice in 1989, the average age was 23.

“We’ve got to get this back into the high schools,” he said.

Lee Worley (right), executive director of apprenticeships and training at Ironworkers International, chats with a WDI attendee after a session on apprenticeships.

Another problem is that many students who apply for apprenticeships don’t know what it requires and don’t have the basic knowledge to do the work, Worley said. For example, less than 20 percent of applicants for construction apprenticeships can answer how many inches there are in 2.5 feet, he said.

There are other options in helping students prepare for apprenticeships. Worley sited a successful Ironworkers pre-apprenticeship program offered at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The program requires students to take a total of 24 credits through courses such as safety, construction plan reading, math for the trades, how to handle tools, equipment and material, among other areas.

It appears to be gaining traction. In its first year, five students joined. Last year, it doubled to 10. This year, 28 students are enrolled in the program, Worley said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.