Education and Skills

Apprenticeships could change the way Americans work and learn

Apprenticeships could close the gap between the skills employers need and those applicants have.

Apprenticeships could close the gap between the skills employers need and those applicants have. Image:  FHI 360/Jessica Scranton

Lisa Johnson
Director, National Institute for Work and Learning, FHI 360
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Education and Skills?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Education is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Listen to the article

  • The gap between the skills employers need and those that potential employees have is growing in the US.
  • The traditional way of bridging that gap – a college degree – is becoming less affordable.
  • Apprenticeships, which are underutilized in the US, could be the answer.

There is a widening gap in the United States between the skills employers are looking for and the skills potential employees have.

Traditionally, a college degree has been the way to bridge that gap, but the ever-increasing cost of higher education straps new graduates with significant debt — and wages and inflation-adjusted earnings have not kept up to allow borrowers to pay off their loans and live comfortably.

Research from US News and World Report found staggering growth in college tuition over the last 20 years. When compared to 2002, tuition and fees at private national universities increased 134%. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public national universities rose 141%. And in-state tuition and fees at public national universities increased the most, at 175%.

The rapid increase in education expenses has fueled debt for borrowers. As of January 2023, the total amount of US student loan debt has reached more than $1.7 trillion, according to figures from the Federal Reserve, with borrowers owing an average of $37,574 in 2022. As a result, student debt is a prominent topic in the US, with the Biden Administration keenly focused on student debt relief.

But in the conversation around student loans, access to education, and job skills training, there is one solution far too few companies are implementing: apprenticeships.

Bridging the skills gap with apprenticeships

Apprenticeships first came about in the later Middle Ages and were supervised by craft guilds and town governments. A master craftsman would employ young people, typically boys, in exchange for food, lodging and formal training.

In 1937, the National Apprenticeship Act was signed into law in the US, establishing the Registered Apprenticeship Program as it is today. Nearly 90 years have gone by, and for many, the phrase “apprenticeship programmes” conjures only images of merchants and artisans.

While apprenticeships are on the rise across the US, with a 64% growth in new apprenticeship programmes between 2012 and 2021, the raw numbers indicate how underutilized apprenticeships truly are in the US.

In 2023, The US Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship counted almost 600,000 active apprentices. According to the UK Government, a country with a population one-fifth the size of the US, there were more than 600,000 active participants in apprenticeship programmes between 2021-2022. In Germany, 54.5% of general education graduates join the work world through an apprenticeship training programme. In Switzerland, about 70% of students opt to do an apprenticeship.

In the US, however, the majority of apprenticeship programmes are for skilled trades, such as construction. Traditional registered apprenticeship programmes for trades such as electric work, plumbing and carpentry are structured, earn-while-you-learn models that combine on-the-job training with related instruction under the guidance of experienced mentors. And yet employers are looking for prospective employees with skills in a wide range of industries, including IT, healthcare, energy, supply chain management and engineering.

To diversify and expand apprenticeships to nontraditional careers, FHI 360 created a Youth Development Practitioner Apprenticeship programme, which prepares apprentices for a career working with young people. We pair apprentices with a mentor to instill job readiness skills and develop their abilities through related training instruction.

Have you read?

When apprentices complete a registered apprenticeship programme, they earn a nationally recognized credential from the US Department of Labor certifying that they are proficient in that occupation. The debt-free education model of apprenticeships not only benefits the apprentices – it’s also appreciated by employers and fellow staff members.

“It helps me knowing we have a staff that is continuously getting better at their craft, and, in turn, I can feel comfort in the quality of services we provide to the community,” said Alejandro Garcia, an apprentice supervisor. “This is a valuable experience that not many staff, let alone youth, have early in their career development.”

Garcia is not alone in his positive experience. According to a 2022 study from the American Apprenticeship Initiative Evaluation, of the 68 employers surveyed, 96% of them cited improved company culture as a benefit, and more than 90% reported that their apprenticeship programmes led to improvements in their talent pipelines and increased employee loyalty.

As we look to the future of the workforce, it is imperative for more US businesses to create accessible pathways to employment. Registered apprenticeship programmes can foster skills and fuel loyalty without the need for student loans.

The result? Registered apprenticeships pay off. Research from the US Department of Commerce found that apprenticeships improve companies’ overall performance and provide a competitive advantage over other firms.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

AI is changing the shape of leadership – how can business leaders prepare?

Ana Paula Assis

May 10, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum