For many of us, the word ‘apprenticeship’ conjures up images of soot-streaked blacksmiths silhouetted before a blazing furnace. In some countries, systems of apprenticeships do have roots in medieval guilds, but today many employers, educational institutions, and government widely support them as part of modern business. However, in the United States, apprenticeship offerings remain limited, and the public vision of the system ranges from largely unknown to downright Dickensian.

Not to be relegated as a thing of the past, apprenticeships represent a critical opportunity for the United States to fill its middle skills jobs gap. Requiring more training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, middle skills positions constitute a full 54 percent of U.S. jobs. Despite apprenticeships’ potential for aligning the skills youth possess with those employers struggle to find, benefiting youth as well as businesses, fewer than five percent of U.S. youth train as apprentices. Earlier this month, an array of decision-makers—from Hilton, Adecco, and IBM to the International Labour Organization and the U.S. Department of Labor—came together to discuss these challenges at the 2016 International Apprenticeships Meeting, hosted in Washington, D.C., by the Global Apprenticeships Network (GAN).

During the GAN meeting, three themes emerged for how to reduce barriers and increase the uptake of youth-friendly apprenticeship programs in the United States:

  1. Eliminate the stigma of apprenticeships and change mindsets not only among students, but also with teachers, parents, guidance counselors, and employers. In countries like Germany and Switzerland, young workers view an apprenticeship, where trainees split their days between classroom instruction and time on the job, as a highly respected career move. In fact, roughly 60 percent of young Germans hold apprenticeships. In the United States, the recent study From Medieval to Millennial, by nonprofit organization Young Invincibles, found that three key misconceptions dissuade youth from pursuing this track: these young people believe apprenticeship programs don’t currently exist in their communities, are just unpaid internships, and preclude receiving a college degree or viable credential. The rigid emphasis in the United States on tertiary education, coupled with the prevailing impression of apprenticeships as a “second-class path” or something from the feudal era, keeps young people and the adults around them from valuing the training, experience, income, and qualification that apprenticeships can provide.
  2. Remove limits on apprenticeships and diversify skills training in apprenticeship programs. In Switzerland and Germany, the average age of apprentices is 17 or 18. In the United States, it’s 28, a difference that means the system is neglecting the vital population of 16- to 24-year-olds. Those are the youth most in need of support systems to start down pathways to productive livelihoods. Apprenticeships in the United States also must be expanded to different skill sets and more occupations. Programs in skilled trades such as construction and manufacturing have eroded, and fields such as information and communications technology (ICT) and hospitality offer potential for long-term careers, growth, and decent wages.
  3. Show companies the value of hiring apprentices as an innovative way to bring on talent. Many European companies see apprenticeships as a business investment, not corporate social responsibility. In contrast, many U.S. companies see only a heavy upfront cost and ignore the payoffs in employee productivity, engagement, and loyalty. While a number of federal and state-level apprenticeship initiatives have successfully taken root, expansion remains slow. Improved metrics stemming from apprenticeships, such as the business impact of greater employee retention, must be used to sell corporate profit and loss managers on the value of such programs.

In light of the complex distinctions between markets, no one expects the German or Swiss model to function perfectly in the American context. However, given the prohibitive costs of U.S. higher education, the acute challenges of youth unemployment, and the growing need for a workforce with market-relevant competencies and experience, apprenticeships represent a solution for employers and workers alike to bridge the gap in the U.S. labor market.

Laura Rosen is Director, Corporate Partnerships.