Time to build on Mass. registered apprenticeship program

We need a national system providing new pathway to jobs

THE AMERICAN WORKFORCE is at a crossroads.

It’s understandable that a lot of workers to feel like there’s no place left for them in the 21st Century economy, given the jobs being sent overseas, the automation replacing workers by the hundreds, and the uncertainty of an economy bound to look vastly different as we emerge from an unprecedented global pandemic.

For most folks, especially those with families to support and bills to pay, going back to college after years or decades of work is more than just inconvenient – it’s unaffordable, too.

The question then becomes: What can workers do to virtually guarantee themselves a good-paying job while both allowing for them to look after their loved ones and avoid taking out loans?

The answer for many workers is not as complicated as they may think.

Registered apprenticeships provide a tried and true pathway for workers looking to find a stable career earning family-sustaining wages in jobs that typically cannot be exported overseas or replaced by technology. What’s more, the registered apprenticeship credential is recognized nationwide, meaning workers won’t be confined to jobs in a certain state or region.

Not only do 94 percent of apprentices retain employment at the end of their apprenticeship, but they also earn an average starting wage of $70,000 per year – higher than the annual mean wages for many Massachusetts residents. However, this powerful tool has been tremendously underutilized for far too long: only a fraction of 1 percent of workers have completed this program.

At a time when the national student debt exceeds $1.5 trillion – substantially more than the annual GDP of every state in New England combined – and tens of millions of Americans have filed for or already exhausted unemployment benefits, we need to greatly expand and invest in apprenticeship opportunities that give workers a viable opportunity to get back on their feet.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has already taken steps to expand registered apprenticeships. The Baker-Polito administration’s apprenticeship expansion plan, which was launched in 2018, added more than 100 new manufacturing apprentices in the first year alone to bolster the pipeline of skilled workers ready to hit the ground running in existing or new industries across the Commonwealth.

What the governor has done here can be built on and replicated nationwide with support from the federal government.

Just before Thanksgiving, the US House of Representatives passed long overdue legislation to do just that. The National Apprenticeship Act of 2020 overhauls federal apprenticeship laws that have gone largely unchanged for almost a century by investing $3.9 billion over the next five years to create nearly 1 million new apprenticeship, youth apprenticeship, and pre-apprenticeship opportunities for American workers.

Notably, this legislation ensures that small businesses and their workers have the opportunity to reap the rewards of apprenticeships just as much their larger competitors. That’s because it includes the Trahan-Morelle bill to provide incentives for these businesses to participate in the national apprenticeship system, which would create or expand a registered apprenticeship program to serve folks already in the workforce, provide wage support for enrolled apprentices, and deliver necessary technical assistance.

The national apprenticeship system, as administered by the US Department of Labor, would even go a step further, giving particular priority to attracting populations that have not traditionally been included in apprenticeship programs, including women, people of color, those with a disability, and veterans.

Although apprenticeships, like four-year degrees, are not for everyone, the rapidly changing economy of the 21stCentury has proven that settling for a high school diploma cannot be a worker’s only option if we’re going to have a strong workforce.

Meet the Author

Lori Trahan

US Representative, Massachusetts Third District
Meet the Author

Rosalin Acosta

Secretary of labor and workforce development, Baker administration
Registered apprenticeships provide a valuable alternative, and as we work to ensure these opportunities are available to everyone, workers should consider the possibility that it could be the right choice for them.

Lori Trahan is a congresswoman from Massachusetts and Rosalin Acosta is the Massachusetts secretary of labor and workforce development.