What Does PIAAC Tell Us about Apprenticeship?

“Not all knowledge comes from college, but not all skills come from degrees” (Mike Rowe). This popular piece of wisdom indeed rings true, but we seem to be short on reliable information about the individuals who take a career path through apprenticeship and how they benefit from those programs.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical, large-scale study that was developed under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2012 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Education surveyed 8,660 individuals ages 16-74 in the United States. In the background questionnaire, individuals were asked, “During the past 12 months, were you in a formal apprenticeship program leading to journeyman status in a skilled trade or craft?” Approximately 2 percent of the surveyed population (sample n = 144) were or had been in a formal apprenticeship program at the time the PIAAC survey was taken.

According to PIAAC, “A journeyman is a person who has fully served an apprenticeship in a trade or craft and is a qualified worker in that trade or craft.” Using the public-use data published on the website of the U.S. Department of Education, we found that among participants in apprenticeship programs, about 74 percent were under age 35, and most were from the South (46%), West (26%), and the Midwest (16%). In this population, approximately 57 percent had a high school diploma and 29 percent held a college degree (see Figure 1). Most of the participants in such programs were either working (50%) or working and studying in formal education simultaneously (33%), and 93 percent had had a paid job during the 12 months preceding the PIAAC survey (see Table 1). They were in skilled occupations (30%), semi-skilled blue-collar occupations (37%), semi-skilled white-collar occupations (20%), and elementary occupations (13%). As is shown in Figure 1, a large proportion of participants in apprenticeship programs were male (79%), White (54%), English native speakers (77%), non-first or second-generation immigrants (i.e., both parents were born in this country) (72%), and at least one parent who had high school or college education (84%).

piaccFigure 1

Small sample size is a notable weakness in our analysis; we therefore suggest that caution be exercised when interpreting the reported results. However, this small sample size is meaningful in the sense that apprenticeship is less frequently adopted as a career pathway. While many factors affect the choice of high school students for their postsecondary education, recent studies, such as the Youth Apprenticeship in America Today (Parton, 2017), point out that misperceptions about apprenticeship programs may be a possible reason. Today, we use a variety of terms -internship, mentorship, practicum, clinical training and site coaching- to describe the choices of programs for the acquisition of job-related practical skills; apprenticeship is no longer narrowly connected with certain traditional occupations such as carpenters and goldsmith. In the public education arena, as President Obama remarked in 2015, more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships should be offered to “give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education.”

In the next blog, we will look at how apprenticeship programs narrow the gaps between school learning and use of employable skills.
piaccTable 1