Apprenticeships—Narrowing the Skills Gap and Making School More Relevant (Part 1)

“When the ladies from the business office came in to show us how they use spreadsheets in their job, the lesson became something that I need to learn because I will use it one day.”

This remark was made by a high-school student from Alabama, one of the interviewees in a recent qualitative study on the benefits of a school/industry partnership. This student is right. The researchers found that the connection between school and industry not only can help high school students to overcome part of the skills gap, but also motivate students to learn what they think useful for their future jobs.

Skills gap refers to the mismatch between the skills employers want and the skills the labor market offers. To broach the topic of the skills gap, we conducted two analyses using the survey data of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) collected by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012/14. We first looked at two background questions in the PIAAC survey, which were self-reported by U.S. workers about the usefulness of formal education and job-related training, and compared the responses provided by individuals with apprenticeship experiences and those without in the United States. Then, we investigated what literacy and numeracy skills were frequently used at work reported by U.S. workers with experiences obtained through apprenticeships.

This blog is divided into two parts—the first part contains our report on the findings about the two questions related to the usefulness of school and training.

How useful are degree/certificate programs in preparing for the job market?

This question was answered by more than 1,000 individuals (n = 1,309) that were employed either full time or part-time while studying for a degree or certificate in the last 12 months before the time of the PIAAC survey. As shown in Figure 1 (left pie chart), less than half of the population (43%) felt that their degree/certificate programs were very useful. One out of four individuals (25%) said that their degree/certificate programs were not useful at all. The results seem to lend credence to our concerns about the lack of connection between school and labor market.

Figure 1

How useful are work-related trainings for jobs?

The second similar question asked in the PIAAC survey was how useful were organized sessions for on-the-job training, or training by supervisors or co-workers. Over 3,000 individuals (n = 3,432) that had attended such trainings during the last 12 months before the time of the PIAAC survey answered this question. More than half of the population said that the trainings in which they participated were very useful; only 8 percent felt that their training was not useful at all (right pie chart, Figure 1). This result suggests that on-the-job training for today’s workers plays a more important role than a degree or certificate alone in acquiring skills for employment.

How useful are both education and training in preparing for jobs?

We further investigated whether participation in both degree/certificate programs and on-the-job training is “double” useful for jobs. Only 30 percent of the individuals who answered both questions felt that both, their formal education and work-related training, were very useful for their jobs. While more research is needed to draw any conclusion here, this result suggests that many employees (i.e., 7 out of 10 individuals employed) may feel that they need to develop more job-related skills from either formal education or professional trainings.

How do individuals with apprenticeship experiences perceive the usefulness of their education and training?

Evidence has shown that apprenticeship programs can reduce unemployment rate and lead to career success, as the programs equip young adults with both occupational skills and employability skills. According to our analyses, employees with apprenticeship background expressed more positive attitudes toward their education. As shown in Figure 2, three out of four employees with apprenticeships (75%) felt that their degree/certificate programs were useful for their jobs. This percentage is much higher than that of their peers without apprenticeships (57%). At the same time, most of the individuals with apprenticeships (85%) felt that their professional training was useful for their jobs. The findings suggest that apprenticeships could be an effective strategy, at least from the perspective of employees, to narrow the skills gap and make formal education more relevant to the job market.

Figure 2


In our next blog -the second part of this topic- we will describe our analyses on literacy/ numeracy skills used by individuals with apprenticeship experiences, and discuss the connection between apprenticeship and the labor market as projected by the U.S. Department of Labor.