The Return of Apprenticeships and Career and Technical Education

Today’s skills gap has multiple root causes. Tops among them: education shortfalls, mass Baby Boomer retirements, a tight talent market leading to fewer active job seekers. But promising efforts are underway to reduce the skills shortfall by revamping two age-old pathways to workforce building. Educational institutions, companies, and federal, state, and local governments are spearheading a renewal of apprenticeship and Career and Technical Education programs. Read on to learn why they went out of favor, and how their resurgence is helping bridge the skills gap.

What is an Apprenticeship? (Plus a Very Brief History)

Merriam-Webster defines an apprenticeship as “an arrangement in which someone learns an art, trade, or job under another.” The arrangement is formal and includes a contract outlining what the apprentice will learn and the timeline. Apprenticeships differ from higher education because the person is paid while they’re learning the skill or craft on the job.

Apprenticeships date back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Rome when craftsmen passed their skills on to the next generation through organized training. Craft guilds developed during the Middle Ages in Europe to establish trade standards and formalize learning processes. Common apprenticeships were bakers, tailors, carpenters, metalsmiths, potters, stone cutters, and even lawyers. Many common terms in use today developed during that period, including master craftsman and journeyman.

After the industrial revolution, apprenticeships expanded to include modern skilled trades positions, such as machinist, electrician, and steel worker.

What is Career and Technical Education (CTE)?

At the turn of the 19th century, the American school system added vocational education to prepare the emerging workforce for industrial and manufacturing jobs. Because these careers didn’t require a college education, high school would give them the technical skills they needed to enter the workforce after graduation and learn as they worked.

The Image Problem of Apprenticeships and Vocational Training

The “learn-and-earn” approach of apprenticeships and the hands-on approach of vocational education went out of favor in the US over many decades beginning in the mid-20th century. This was, in part, because of a growing perception that the trades were less valuable careers than professional occupations requiring higher education. This deepened into a stigma equating trade careers with a disinterest in academic pursuits. It didn’t help that students who were struggling academically were often tracked into the vocational programs once they were labeled “not college material.”

Though the image problem continues in the US, young people (and their parents), schools, and companies are beginning to reassess these hands-on approaches to learning and careers. The perception shift comes as people try to solve the skills gap problem and question the skyrocketing costs and debilitating student debt that often comes along with higher education.

Reviving Apprenticeships and Career and Technical Education

The gradual mindset shift has been underway over the past 15 years or so, and is continuing. Many business leaders, educators, and elected officials are inspired by Switzerland, Germany, and other European countries where apprenticeships never waned and weren’t harshly judged as a lesser route to work. Today, apprenticeships across Europe train people across industries for high-paying professional and trade jobs.

The Career and Technical Education programs proliferating across the country have a stronger academic focus than traditional vocational programs. The hands-on learning is also more technical, reflecting the inclusion of tech into almost every industry and occupation. Students fixing cars, for example, must understand computer diagnostic programs, and subject areas have broadened to include healthcare, engineering, and IT.

Educators are also more focused on having students ready for work and college at the end of a CTE program, so they can make choices based upon their preferences, strengths, and circumstances. There is a growing understanding that there is no “right” pathway. Some students will enter the workforce directly and learn on the job, some will work for a while and then go to college, and some will pursue certifications and apprenticeships.

In 2014, President Barack Obama hosted the first White House Summit on American Apprenticeships, and in 2017 the Trump Administration expanded funding for CTE and apprenticeship programs. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people registered in apprenticeship programs rose 29 percent to 505,000. That number continues to rise and new programs are added regularly.

Apprenticeship programs are generally joint ventures between businesses and schools, often with government funding support. Businesses benefit from participation in these programs with returns on investment from 40 to 50 percent, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Case Western Reserve University.

Most of the apprenticeship programs currently tracked by the United States Department of Labor are within construction, the military, manufacturing, transportation and utilities. But to alleviate the skills gaps, business services and tech companies are adopting the apprenticeship approach. The apprenticeship program launched by IBM in 2017 has quickly grown from 13 to 120 participants. These apprentices work while training for specific skills, such as data analytics, cybersecurity, and software engineering.1

Apprenticeships and career and technical education are having a renaissance bolstered by an influx of federal, state, and local funding. If these programs can finally overcome their negative associations, they will benefit job seekers and businesses alike, as they close the skills gap and strengthen the US workforce.

Need help adding skilled talent to your workforce or thinking of starting an apprenticeship program? Contact LINK.


  1. King, Kate. “Apprenticeships on the Rise at New York Tech and Finance Firms.” The Wall Street Journal. Web. 23 Sept 2018.