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December 9, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Apprenticeships: great jobs and good pay — but scarce

Can a practice that was popular in the Middle Ages help improve worker training and education today?

A new national report is urging states and the federal government to expand the use of apprenticeships — work that couples on-the-job training with class work, usually at a community or technical college.

“Apprenticeships have been a tried and true method of educating and training workers since the Middle Ages,” says the report by Ben Olinsky and Sarah Ayres, researchers with the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress. They’re the authors of “Training for Success: A Policy to Expand Apprenticeships in the United States.” 

An apprenticeship is both a job and an education. Under the “earn while you learn” model, apprentices take community or technical college classes while also working side-by-side with skilled employees to learn the trade or skill.

The U.S. has a formal registered apprenticeship system that dates to 1937, but the training model is not widely used or understood by American workers or businesses, Olinsky and Ayres write. Apprenticeships are more popular in European countries, particularly England, Germany and Switzerland.

The report credits Washington as having a robust apprenticeship program. Currently, there are about 8,600 registered apprentices, said Elizabeth Smith, assistant director for fraud prevention and labor standards at the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Most apprenticeships are in the building and construction trades. Typically, apprentices do 2,000 hours of work and 144 hours of classroom instruction a year.

Washington is one of the few states that offers apprentices a 50 percent reduction in the cost of classes at community and technical colleges, but it does not offer businesses a tax credit for setting up an apprenticeship, as many other states do.

Olinsky and Ayres say some tweaks to the policies that guide apprenticeships could help greatly expand the model beyond the building and construction trades.

Among their recommendations: More marketing of apprenticeships, tax incentives to businesses, competitive grants to support public-private partnerships, an online database of openings and an initiative to bring recent high school graduates into apprenticeships.

They also suggest encouraging more apprenticeships that appeal to women. In Washington, only 9.7 of apprentices are women.

Some new apprenticeships are being formed in this state could attract more women participants — for example, medical apprenticeships in migrant and community health centers, Smith said.

Smith said most apprenticeships are highly sought-after — “when they have openings, they go pretty quick” — in part because the starting salaries are $26,000 to $36,000 a year.

“The beautiful thing about apprenticeships is that they meet the workers’ needs for training and advancement, and also the employers’ needs for skilled workers to do the job,” Smith said.

Washington lists its apprenticeships in an online database on the L&I website.

Comments | More in News | Topics: apprenticeships, higher ed


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