Apprenticeships Are Gaining in Popularity

Historical Context of the Decline in Skilled Tradespeople

The decline in skilled tradespeople began to gain attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, primarily due to several key factors:

  1. Cultural Shift: There was a significant cultural shift that emphasized the importance of a four-year college degree over vocational training. This change was partly driven by the belief that a college degree was a sure path to better job prospects and higher lifetime earnings as well as the perception that trade roles were less flexible and therefore less desirable by GenZ and Millennials, as cited in a 2024 McKinsey study
  2. Economic Changes: Economic shifts, including globalization and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, reduced the visibility and perceived stability of trade careers. As a result, fewer young people were encouraged to pursue these paths.
  3. Educational Policies: Educational policies increasingly focused on college preparatory curricula, often at the expense of vocational training. High schools reduced or eliminated shop classes and other technical programs, further decreasing interest and exposure to skilled trades.
  4. Retirement of Baby Boomers: The aging workforce, with many skilled tradespeople from the baby boomer generation retiring, exacerbated the shortage as there were not enough new entrants to replace them – see the prior McKinsey study which highlights that the proportion of post-work aged population is projected to increase to 3.5 out of 10 US citizens by 2027 from the 2 out of 10 we had in 1984.

Interaction Between Trade Schools and Colleges/Universities

Historically, trade schools and colleges/universities have often operated in parallel but separate tracks. Trade schools focused on providing hands-on, practical training for specific careers, such as plumbing, electrical work, and welding. In contrast, colleges and universities offered broader academic education aimed at developing critical thinking and specialized knowledge in fields like business, law, medicine, and the arts.

However, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the value of integrating elements from both systems:

  1. Articulation Agreements: Some colleges and universities have formed articulation agreements with trade schools, allowing students to transfer credits between institutions. This helps bridge the gap between vocational training and academic education, providing students with more flexible pathways.
  2. Joint Programs: Collaborative programs have been developed where students can earn both technical certifications and associate or bachelor’s degrees. These programs aim to provide a well-rounded education that includes both practical skills and theoretical knowledge.
  3. Employer Partnerships: Increasingly, colleges are partnering with businesses to create programs that ensure students are job-ready upon graduation. These partnerships often include internships, apprenticeships, and job placement services. 
  4. Prior Learning Assessments and Competency-based Learning. Institutions that value the experience and expertise gained by people with specific trades can assist these individuals as they grow in their careers. By providing credit for the skills already acquired, they can smooth a pathway for continuing education as we discussed in our piece on competency-based learning in May 2024.

Strategic Considerations for Colleges and Universities

Given the shifting demographics and changing perceptions of the value of a college education versus pursuing a trade, colleges and universities should consider several strategic approaches:

  1. Embrace Vocational Training: Institutions should integrate vocational training programs into their offerings. This can include developing new trade programs or partnering with local trade schools to offer dual enrollment opportunities. An article in Fortune suggests, “Enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking such data in 2018.”
  2. Highlight Economic Outcomes: Colleges should clearly communicate the economic benefits of various educational pathways, including both traditional degrees, vocational training and apprenticeships. This involves showcasing successful alumni from both tracks and providing transparent data on job placement and earnings.
  3. Flexible Learning Pathways: Develop flexible learning pathways that allow students to move between vocational training and academic education. This can include stackable credentials, where students earn certifications that build towards a degree, and recognizing prior learning and experience for academic credit.
  4. The Market Likes Apprenticeships: Colleges should enhance their focus on applied learning experiences, such as internships, apprenticeships, co-ops, and project-based courses that provide real-world experience. A survey from American Staffing found that, “The vast majority of U.S. adults with an opinion about apprenticeships view them favorably (92%).”
  5. Marketing and Outreach: Enrollment marketers should target a diverse audience by emphasizing the practical and economic benefits of vocational training alongside traditional degree programs. Messaging should highlight how the institution supports various career paths and provides robust support systems for all students​​​​​​​​​​.

By adapting to these strategies, colleges and universities can better meet the evolving needs of learners and the workforce, ensuring they remain relevant and valuable in a rapidly changing educational landscape.