Why Apprenticeships Are a Missed Opportunity

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Tuesday, March 2, 2021
By Jamie Merisotis
Photo by iStock/monkeybusinessimages
Business schools should take a closer look at the many advantages that apprenticeships have to offer.

In the skilled trades, everyone thinks apprenticeships are a good idea. And whenever the economy suffers in the United States, interest in apprenticeships spikes. During our current downturn, the outgoing and incoming political administrations have called for expanding access to these opportunities.

But while most people think apprenticeships are a great way to learn carpentry, plumbing, or sheet metal work, few see them as viable ways to prepare for careers in business. For that, many people contend that workers should pursue a more traditional university education leading to a business degree—often an MBA.

Sure, we understand that real-world experience matters, especially in an economy that is constantly being reshaped by technology and artificial intelligence. In a digitally driven society, uniquely human skills and attributes—such as creativity, ethics, an aptitude for interpersonal communication, the ability to work well on teams, and the desire to be of service to others—will be increasingly important to an individual’s success. In fact, many business students apply for internships with companies precisely so that they can prepare themselves for the emerging world of “human work."

But there are problems with internships. For one thing, many low-income students, students of color, and first-generation learners find it more difficult to participate in internships than many of their peers. This difficulty can arise because these learners either cannot afford the opportunity cost involved (especially when internship opportunities offer low salaries or are unpaid) or lack the networks that more privileged students use to find these opportunities.

Another problem with internships is that they are seldom integrated into students’ academic programs. Instead, colleges often see the internship as a supplement to rather than an integral part of higher education. That approach can result in an enormous missed opportunity for colleges that want to incorporate “learning by doing” into their curricula. This is especially true now that research shows the power of experiential learning to equip people with the high-level skills that human-focused occupations demand.

It’s little wonder that more people are looking for alternatives that will better prepare them for the future of work. But while alternatives such as coding boot camps, business incubators, and other trendy, lower cost options may be attractive to some, business schools still offer strong advantages to most students. Business schools offer recognized credentials that reflect both completion of a business curriculum and a broader, college-level education—in the form of degrees. A few anecdotal exceptions aside, a college degree is, and is likely to remain, what most employers seek in their new hires.

But that doesn’t mean business schools can ignore the fact that real-world experience should be better integrated into business education. This is where apprenticeships could play a much bigger role.

Opportunities With Global Appeal

Although the U.S. has a mixed view of apprenticeships, they have been popular pathways to the workforce in other countries for quite some time. In the United Kingdom, for instance, apprenticeships are available across all sectors of the economy, in fields as diverse as engineering, healthcare, social work, the performing arts, and of course, business. In 2019, about 742,000 people participated in apprenticeships in the U.K., compared to only 500,000 in the U.S. This is the case even though the U.K.’s population is only one-fifth that of the U.S.

In Germany, a country with a population a quarter of that in the U.S., 1.34 million people were pursuing apprenticeships in 2015. Indeed, more than half of all German workers enter the workforce through apprenticeships. Around 350 occupations in Germany require post-secondary technical learning, and two-thirds of them require apprenticeships. These include occupations as diverse as industrial electronics engineer and train operator.

A few anecdotal exceptions aside, a college degree is, and is likely to remain, what most employers seek in their new hires.

In the U.K., more and more apprenticeships are so-called “higher” or “degree” educational options. These opportunities combine technical and academic learning and lead to recognized credentials that people can build on. Good examples are the degree apprenticeships offered at the Bank of England in digital and technology solutions, data science, and economics. Developed and offered in conjunction with universities throughout the U.K., these apprenticeships can lead to a bachelor’s or master’s degree in business.

Employers and government agencies in the U.K. split the cost of apprenticeship programs, which means that apprentices are paid salaries and obtain degrees—all without going into debt. Many apprenticeships in Germany, France, and other European countries also lead to college degrees, and such programs are becoming more popular in other countries.

Australia maintains its Australian Apprenticeships Pathways website, which serves as a comprehensive information portal for students, job seekers, and employers. The site also offers guidance on finding school-based apprenticeships and traineeships, which students can pursue part-time while they are still in high school. During that time, they will “earn a wage, train with an employer, and work towards an accredited qualification,” according to the website.

ESSEC Business School—which has campuses in France, Singapore, and Morocco—invites companies to recruit its students for apprenticeships. As ESSEC describes on its website, these apprenticeships are distinguished from internships by the fact that they “alternate in-company experience with coursework” and “help students finance their studies.”

These apprenticeships are jointly designed by industry and higher education institutions, and most learning takes place on the job. But because they lead to degrees, they can never be dead ends. Students who complete these apprenticeships earn credentials that recognize the foundational and specialized learning they gained, which they can use to change jobs or careers if the need or opportunity arises.

In 2019, about 742,000 people participated in apprenticeships in the United Kingdom, compared to only 500,000 in the United States. This is the case even though the U.K.’s population is only one-fifth that of the U.S.

There are some apprenticeships like this in the U.S., but not nearly enough. One example is the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME). Apprentices in FAME work three days a week in companies such as Toyota, 3M, and the Buffalo Trace Distillery, while attending classes two days a week in a Kentucky community college. After two years, the apprentice earns an associate’s degree in advanced manufacturing and has a two-year head start on a career.

Creating More Pathways to Work

Of course, it helps when apprenticeship programs have a reliable funding base. Most programs in the United States depend on funding from the federal government, which is an unreliable source even in the best of times. Not only that, they rely on additional funding obtained through a complicated system of grants involving states, colleges, industry associations, unions, employers, and other sources. Such patchwork funding can hamper the school’s ability to design apprenticeship programs that can adapt quickly and flexibly to changing workforce conditions.

Contrast the environment in the U.S. to that of the U.K., where employers above a certain size must contribute to a national apprenticeship fund. The amount they pay is equal to half a percent of their total payrolls. Employers can then spend those funds on approved apprenticeships—if they don’t use the funds, they forfeit them. Everyone is on a level playing field, and everyone participates.

But even without government support, there is a lot that business schools could do to make apprenticeships more available to a wider range of students. Through close partnerships with employers, business schools could create more such pathways into the workforce that integrate paid on-the-job training into dedicated coursework—all culminating in degree-based credentials. 

Business education must respond to rapid changes in the economy and prepare students for success in real-world careers. As they consider how to tackle this challenge, apprenticeships should be a much bigger part of their solution.

Merisotis is author of 
Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

Jamie Merisotis
President and CEO, Lumina Foundation
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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