An apprenticeship is defined as the service or condition of an apprentice, the state in which a person is gaining instruction in a trade or art, typically under legal agreement. The core definitional attribute of being an apprentice is learning as a beginner, normally for a trade or an occupation. Formalized apprenticeships are viewed as a developmental sequence of supervised competency-based, work-based training of increasing independence for young adults seeking entry into the trades. Apprenticeships are widely available in many European and other countries but are used more narrowly in the United States. Within the context of career development, the concept of apprenticeship has become more widely applied to a variety of hands-on, work-based learning experiences for young adults and for high school youth as well. In recent years, the term apprenticeship has been applied to structured forms of mentoring and as a learning modality termed cognitive apprenticeship. Formal apprenticeships have been widely studied for their educational and economic benefits.
The concept of cognitive apprenticeship characterizes teaching and learning cognitive skills in various subject areas, by designing learning environments that incorporate content, pedagogy, learning sequence, and the sociology of learning. A cognitive apprenticeship is viewed as a prototype for effective education because it simulates how learning more naturally occurs through coaching and practice, with a focus on valued work and an integration of academic and vocational instruction. Many educational researchers have looked at the learning benefits of the cognitive apprenticeship method, with particular interest in its embedded learning, the scaffolding of instruction, the modeling and use of social and physical contexts, and the promotion of higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. In recent years, the apprenticeship concept has also been applied to hands-on learning in academic and research programs for youth and adults.
Apprenticeship Systems in the United States
Apprenticeship systems have long existed in several occupational sectors in the United States, specifically, metalworking, construction, and the trades. Typically, apprenticeship sponsors, including employers, associations, unions, and governmental agencies, pay most of the training costs, including apprentices’ wages. Sponsors provide on-the-job learning and academic instruction using recognized industry standards and licensing requirements. In 2003, there were 480,000 apprentices enrolled in 29,326 apprenticeship programs across the nation. Further expansion of the adult apprenticeship system in the United States is hindered by difficulty in finding firms to sponsor apprentices and an inadequate infrastructure to support apprenticeships outside unionized trades. Over the past 20 years, several federal initiatives have attempted to expand apprenticeship opportunities nationwide in traditional partner industries such as construction and manufacturing, in new industries in health care and information technology, and in partnerships with U.S. military branches.
Hundreds of academic partnerships for apprenticeships exist with colleges that offer associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and certifications. By the 1990s, 25 percent to 35 percent of two-year colleges provided the academic or general education portion of traditional apprenticeship programs, with a sponsor providing job-specific training at the work site, usually on a cyclical schedule. Most were in the established trades (e.g., machining, sheet metal working) and automotive, with some incorporating the unions in a three-way partnership. Students completing an apprenticeship program are certified and advance to journeyman status, as determined by the sponsoring agency and state.
Youth Apprenticeship in the United States
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the creation of apprenticeship programs at the public educational secondary and postsecondary levels was viewed as key to addressing youth employment and educational difficulties in the United States. The goals of these programs were to reduce the increasingly lengthy and uneven transition of youth into gainful employment after high school and to create formal career development pathways. Such school-to-work transitions were becoming more difficult for poor and minority youth, who were experiencing prolonged unemployment and difficulty gaining access to potential jobs in a labor market that was increasingly demanding more skilled workers.
Various national and state proposals were made to revamp the existing secondary and postsecondary educational pathways to incorporate more general availability of apprenticeship options and progressions of occupational competence assessments. Many educators and policymakers studied youth apprenticeship systems of Germany, Japan, and other countries for replication, focusing on the benefits of fostering an equilibrium between labor market demands and interests across a range of sectors in the economy and structured career preparation and skill development. The federal Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce proposed the creation of a system of standards and certifications for various occupations and a restructured secondary and postsecondary educational system that incorporated career internships and apprenticeships for non-college-bound youth as a means of more rigorously integrating career development into academic programs.
Even in the early stages of its revival, however, the feasibility and utility of youth apprenticeship were debated hotly. There was widespread concern that these programs would lead to unequal educational opportunities, particularly for low-income and educationally disadvantaged youth; that quality could not be monitored effectively; and that employers would be reluctant to participate.
Although a national youth apprenticeship policy failed in the early 1990s, some states revamped their systems to broaden apprenticeship options and workforce assessments in selected trades and industries. By the mid-1990s, several states had extensive youth apprenticeship programs in many occupational and technical areas. By 1994, an estimated 11 percent of all high schools had tech-prep (spanning secondary and postsecondary education) or other youth apprenticeship programs, primarily in technician-level occupations in industries with labor shortages, such as printing, hospitals, and manufacturing.
Aspects of a youth apprenticeship system became incorporated into secondary education by the fostering of more school-to-work career pathways locally and nationally and better articulation with postsecondary education for technical courses of study. Other improvements included more internship opportunities in secondary and postsecondary systems; career-focused programs of study, including career academics; revamped vocational studies; and tech-prep programs. Presently, youth apprenticeship continues to be promoted as one of a number of strategies to improve adolescents’ contact with employers and colleges and promote the development of work-based readiness skills and achievement.
Apprenticeship Systems in Europe
Apprenticeship systems have been used widely in European and Asian countries, although they operate in a somewhat different manner than in the United States.
Germany created a dual system in which employers and the educational system share training and education responsibilities. In France, 50 percent of youth leave school with a certificate of professional aptitude that can lead to employment. Great Britain offers those leaving school one- and two-year paid apprenticeship training opportunities, while in Sweden, most adolescents select a general, vocational, or technical pathway in upper-secondary school. Currently, the apprenticeship system remains strong in Germany, especially in banking, because it reduces recruitment costs, enhances workplace flexibility, and fosters worker loyalty. Similarly, in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, apprenticeships continue to be the primary means of training for skilled manual trades.
Current Research on Apprenticeships
Economists and labor development experts continue to examine the benefits of apprenticeship systems from several vantage points for workers, industries, and governments. Such studies have focused on the social rate of return of apprenticeship training to the employer, the apprentice, and the public sector and have considered the policy implications of shifting more of the costs of general training to the apprentices and the potential for increasing specialized training. Others have looked at employment transitions within various European countries and found apprentices have a better transition to their first jobs than do vocational school graduates.
Some educational researchers have examined apprenticeships for the nature of learning they reflect and for their utility as a means of vocational development. A primary research question is whether apprentice training is simply the acquisition of competency-defined skills or reflects vocational development that requires learning within a culture of practice. Others have found that workplace training such as an apprenticeship is more effective than classroom instruction in training employees. Finally, some researchers have shown that when apprenticeship programs are managed as jointly sponsored union-management programs rather than as unilateral employer-sponsored programs, it improves the retention of women as skilled-craft apprentices.
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- Elbaum, B. and Singh, N. 1995. “The Economic Rationale of Apprenticeship Training: Some Lessons from British and U. S. Experience.” Industrial Relations 34:593-622.
- Hamilton, S. 1990. Apprenticeship for Adulthood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Hansen, J. S., ed. 1994. Preparing for the Workplace. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
- Marshall, R. and Tucker, M. 1992. Thinking for a Living. New York: Basic Books.