Apprenticeship and Skills as Measured by PIAAC

“Young people reap many developmental benefits from engaging in apprenticeships” (Lerman, 2010). In apprenticeship programs, young people learn through observing and working with adult mentors who can guide them, advise them, as well as let them try and make mistakes. According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, “Apprenticeship helps workers to master not only relevant occupational skills but also other work‐related skills, including communication, problem‐solving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of co‐workers” (Lerman, 2010).

In the job market, employers look for candidates not only with education credentials, but also with skills needed in the workplace. In this sense, relying on education credentials alone may not be sufficient to measure skills that would support career success. Education credentials do not necessarily equate to skills on the job (OECD, 2017, p.21).

To improve the measurement of useful skills at work, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) generated a list of indicators of skills needed for jobs. In general, these can be classified as cognitive skills (e.g., literacy and numeracy) and non-cognitive skills (also called soft skills, e.g., team work, self-organization, social and communication skills). According to OECD (2017), employment growth has been strongest in jobs that require both high cognitive and soft skills.

Three domains of cognitive skills –literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (digital problem solving) – were assessed in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). We explored the PIAAC dataset and examined both cognitive and non-cognitive skills of individuals who participated in formal apprenticeship programs. Our key findings can be summarized as follows:

  • As shown in Table 1, for individuals from the same age group (e.g. 16-24, 25-34) and/or from similar education background (e.g. high school diploma or college degree), those with apprenticeships performed significantly lower in literacy than those without. Although individuals with apprenticeships perform higher in numeracy than those without, the difference is not measurably significant. For problem solving skills in technology-rich environments, individuals with apprenticeships perform the same as those without. Age and education level are significant indicators for the cognitive skills of individuals, with or without apprenticeships.

  • As Figure 1 shows, within the group of individuals who participated in apprenticeships, 57 percent spent all the time working cooperatively or collaboratively with co-workers. This percentage is much higher than that among individuals without apprenticeships (43%).

Figure 1 Time spent working cooperatively

  • We further looked at the distribution of some non-cognitive skills measured by PIAAC among individuals who had formal apprenticeship and were working for an employer (n = 128). As shown in Figure 2, within this population, the most frequently used non-cognitive skills at work are sharing work-related information with co-workers, providing advice, and solving simple problems (i.e., a new or difficult situation which requires an individual to think for a while or no more than 5 minutes to find a good solution). While only 17 percent of the population with apprenticeships solve complex problems (i.e., at least 30 minutes to find a good solution or 30 minutes needed to THINK of a solution) daily, 35 percent solve complex problems at least once a week.
  • As shown in Figure 2, selling a product or selling a service (70%), making speeches or giving presentations (69%) and planning the activities of others (63%) are the non-cognitive skills least frequently used by individuals with apprenticeships.

Figure 2 Non-cognitive skills

In summary, the results of our data analysis suggest that formal education, K-12 and/or college, contributes greatly to the development of foundational and fundamental cognitive skills used for both life and work. Individuals with apprenticeships perform lower in literacy than their peers without, but perform the same in numeracy and digital problem solving as their peers without apprenticeships. This situation could be related to the fact that “Apprenticeship in the United States focuses primarily on construction and manufacturing occupations, with large scale programs in electrical, pipe-fitting, carpentry, shipbuilding, maintenance, machining, and welding” (Lerman, 2010).

It should be noticed that after controlling for the scores in literacy, numeracy and digital problem solving, the logistic regression model shows that individuals with apprenticeships are more likely to use more soft skills—cooperating with coworkers (p = .002), advising people (p = .028), planning own activities (p = .010), and organizing own time (p = .018)—than those without. (The results were based on a small sample size; we suggest readers exercise caution when interpreting the results.) These non-cognitive skills, which are developed through practice or apprenticeships, are key to achieving success in employment.

In our next blog, we will broach further in-depth analysis on the relationship between apprenticeships and use of literacy, numeracy and ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills at work.