It's no secret that America is facing a crisis in terms of the widening gap between the skills of its workforce and those needed by companies looking to hire qualified employees. And it's only going to get worse.

By 2020, America is projected to experience a shortage of 3 million workers with associate's degrees or higher and 5 million workers with technical certificates and credentials, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress. But while industry surveys show that a lack of qualified workers is a top concern for many employers, research shows that employers are now spending less on training than they have in the past. Add to this the fact that the high cost of college is putting post-secondary education and training out of reach for many young Americans, and you have an entire generation of workers relegated to low-skill, low-wage jobs for the rest of their lives.

For answers on how to address this current and future problem, we need to look to the past -- to an age-old, time-tested model for training young workers for highly skilled careers that lead to a sustainable path to the middle class. That model is the apprenticeship program.

Earlier this week the U.S. Department of Education announced that it is teaming up with the U.S. Department of Labor to launch the Registered Apprenticeship-College Consortium.


Advertisement

This effort aims to provide people who have completed an apprenticeship with a clearer pathway to a college classroom. With the program, individuals can transfer their hours and even years of hands-on job training as credits, allowing them to get closer to achieving bachelor's or associate's degrees.

"Strengthening the common-sense connection between apprenticeships and colleges is just one of the ways that we are transforming apprenticeship for the 21st century economy," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, in a press release. "As a result of this exciting new consortium, graduates of a Registered Apprenticeship program will not only have better access to jobs that lead to a sustainable career, but they'll also have better access to an education -- all with little or no debt."

The program is a continuation of a promise made earlier in the year during the State of the Union address, when President Barack Obama stated that Vice President Joe Biden would lead a task force centered around providing aspiring workers with the skills and training they need to earn jobs.

Students who take part in the program will have an opportunity to learn through Registered Apprenticeships, which blend classroom learning with on-the-job instruction. One of the major benefits of these initiatives is that they allow participants to earn money as they hone their skills, and students are often able to quickly land positions that demand refined vocational skills once the program is completed. That makes it an extremely appealing option for students who may not have the financial means to fund a traditional college experience. Furthermore, apprenticeships lead to significant increases in lifetime earnings and benefits of up to $300,000 for workers, according to the Center for American Progress.

"This program provides a much needed pathway for students to develop needed technical skills while also pursuing a college degree, strengthening the middle class," said U.S. Secretary of Education Ame Duncan.

This is not a new concept. Apprenticeships have been used in Europe for centuries, and in the United States a formal system of "registered apprenticeships" was created in 1937 by the National Apprenticeship Act and is overseen by the Department of Labor. However, the training model is not widely used or understood by American workers or businesses, according to the Center for American Progress. America had 358,000 active registered apprentices in 2012 - only 7 percent of the number of apprenticeships in England when adjusted for population size.

"Apprenticeships are not a familiar concept to many Americans, but expanding the use of this highly effective training model can help our nation meet the demand for skilled workers, create pathways to well-paying careers for unemployed young workers, and give American businesses a competitive edge in the global marketplace," the Center noted in a report released last November.

One of the biggest roadblocks to expanding apprenticeships in the United States appears to be the initial sticker shock on the part of American businesses. The costs of apprenticeships are usually borne almost entirely by their sponsors, who pay for an apprentice's wages, all on-the-job training costs, and often much of the tuition for their classroom instruction.

But in exchange for this investment, employers receive a pipeline of skilled workers steeped in the culture of their firms and who exhibit strong loyalty to their sponsors. In a number of states, employers may also qualify for tax breaks or other subsidies.

"Businesses must take on significant costs to hire apprentices and are frequently unaware of the benefits they will gain in return. Similarly, workers are unfamiliar with the range of occupations, educational requirements, and salaries associated with apprenticeships," the Center noted.

In its report the Center offers the following recommendations: Improve marketing efforts to generate demand from businesses; tax incentives to help businesses defray the cost of training apprentices; competitive grants to support public-private partnerships; improve access to workers by establishing an online database of openings and launching an initiative to bring recent high school graduates into apprenticeships; and improve research and data collection to enhance our understanding of the economic benefits of apprenticeships and how to expand their reach to women and workers in nontraditional occupations.

As the Center noted, these proposals can connect workers to good jobs, enable businesses to boost their productivity, and offer taxpayers a high return on investment.