Apprenticeships are one of the rare bipartisan ideas in workforce policy—so why are there so few of them?

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said the current apprenticeship programs are too small at a White House conference. “[Only] 0.3 percent of the workforce comes up through a registered apprenticeship. It is not scaling.” Acosta said, according to Politico.

But the latest research from Burning Glass Technologies and the Managing the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School shows there is huge potential to expand this approach. The number of occupations using apprenticeship training could grow from 27 to 74, and the number of actual jobs filled by apprentices could rise from 410,000 to 3.3 million.

The report, “Room to Grow: Identifying New Frontiers for Apprenticeships,” examined the skills required in current apprenticeships, and then looked at what other occupations had similar profiles.

The research identified two sets of occupations that have potential for using apprenticeships as a training approach:

Expanders are roles very much like current apprenticeships. These include jobs like solar photovoltaic installers, tax preparers, computer-controlled machine operators, and customer service representatives. These jobs have a concentrated, specific set of skills in demand, and rarely request a bachelor’s degree. In addition, these jobs are growing fast (15% a year) and they are available throughout the country.

One drawback is that, on average, these 21 roles pay less than current apprenticeships, with a median salary of $34,542 compared to $44,212. Still, these roles all pay above the $15 per hour level recognized as a living wage.

Apprentices Graphic: Characteristics of potential expander apprenticeships

Boosters have a similar profile to other apprenticeships, but one significant difference: many employers are asking for bachelor’s degrees for these otherwise middle-skill jobs. Yet employers are still open to those with alternative credentials. For example, roughly 60% of IT help desk jobs ask for a bachelor’s degree, yet the specific skills requested are the same whether a degree is requested or not.

The advantages here would be both opening up fields that offer the potential for career advancement, and pushing back against degree inflation that damages opportunities for workers without a college education. In fact, in countries like Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Holland, there are already apprenticeship tracks for many of these Booster occupations. These roles also pay well, with a median salary of $55,000.

Apprentices Graphic: Characteristics of potential booster apprenticeships

The goal of our report was to identify occupations that could be filled using apprenticeships—not predict those that will be. Current U.S. apprenticeship programs are well-established, with buy-in from employers, educators, and unions going back decades. New apprenticeships would need to build these support networks. Employers would also need to shoulder more of the cost of training—although they would get more precisely trained workers in return. A great deal of work needs to be done to make apprenticeships viable in these occupations—but the research shows that it is possible.

To find out more, read our new report with Harvard Business School, Room to Grow: Identifying New Frontiers for Apprenticeships.

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