While This Is Spinal Tap holds a special place in my music mockumentary heart, the one that goes to eleven is The Rutles, a parody Beatles biopic from a Monty Python splinter group. The Rutles (subtitled All You Need is Cash) enlisted Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and George Harrison himself to construct an alternative history of the “pre-fab four.” Beatles-level parody songs composed by the late great Neil Innes include Ouch (Help), Doubleback Alley (Penny Lane), and Get Up and Go (Get Back). Meanwhile, Yellow Submarine becomes a film about a Yellow Submarine Sandwich featuring the hit Cheese and Onions. Although each Beatle has his own absurd story line, Ringo’s is the toppermost of the poppermost. When the Rutle drummer attempts to marry 23-year-old butcher’s apprentice Brenda Liola, his bride is lost in the crowd and, in the ensuing confusion, is accidentally married to a party of Scotsmen from Hull, inspiring the haunting ballad When You Find the Girl of Your Dreams in the Arms of Some Scotsmen from Hull. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?)
The Rutles also features the obligatory walk across Abbey Road. In Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary on the life of George Harrison, Eric Idle recalls shooting the scene:
We are on Abbey Road filming. And I’m dressed as Paul. Neil was dressed as John with a huge beard. We’re there on Abbey Road and these people come up: “Ah, you’re the Beatles, you’re the Beatles.” But it’s like 20 years later. Do you think they’re still here?
In any decade, dressing as Beatles and marching across Abbey Road is a good way to get attention. And in this decade, a good way to get attention is to employ apprentices like Brenda Liola. A few weeks ago, at a meeting on the future of America’s workforce attended by a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, most couldn’t stop with the apprentice brags. One large system integrator touted its program: 2,000 apprentices since inception nearly a decade ago. That prompted another attendee – a major restaurant organization – to boast about new cybersecurity apprentices: all three of them. Given the size of these companies, three apprentices is a joke and 2,000 over ten years is still laughable.
There’s a reason companies are excited to talk about apprentices, even in tiny numbers: everyone likes them (especially Brenda Liola, especially a party of Scotsmen from Hull). 92% of Americans have a favorable view of apprenticeships. Another survey found that given the choice between a full-tuition college scholarship and a three-year apprenticeship leading to a good job, most parents would opt for the latter. California Governor Gavin Newsom wants five hundred thousand apprentices in the state by 2029 (a seven-fold increase). Mayor Eric Adams wants to increase New York City apprentices by an order of magnitude by 2030. And it’s not just blue states. Republicans are desperate to support earn-and-learn alternatives to college. Apprenticeship may be the one major education/workforce issue both sides agree on. And why not? Apprenticeships are full-time jobs that pay a living wage with built-in training, wage increases, and career pathways – a recipe for resetting and restarting socioeconomic opportunity and mobility.
Apprentice-mania is about to hit our shores. Like Beatle- (and Rutle-) mania, it’s been roiling the UK for a while. Apprenticeships have become so popular in the UK that universities are seeking to draw attention to their degree programs by calling them apprenticeship degrees. By combining full-time jobs, classroom training, on-the-job training, and degrees, apprenticeship degrees appear to be the best of all possible worlds. (If you liked apprenticeships, you’ll love apprenticeship degrees!) According to the CEO of the UK’s University Alliance, demand is growing fast. In 2021, apprenticeship degrees accounted for nearly a third of all new UK apprenticeship starts. But beware: not all apprenticeship degrees are created equal.
Apprenticeships have finite terms. Some can be completed in a year, after which the apprentice becomes a regular ol’ employee. Others last longer, usually when licensure is involved e.g., electricians take six years. Apprenticeship degrees recognize the classroom training component of apprenticeship for credit and allow apprentices to earn degrees. But the devil is definitely in the details.
The primary problem is there aren’t enough hours in the day. Because apprenticeships are jobs, most max out at 144 hours of formal training per year (about a month in class). But even if all these hours are recognized, that’s no more than 15 credits. Meanwhile, apprenticeship on-the-job training is informal, so colleges have a hard time awarding credit. Without supplemental instruction, it would take 8 years to earn a bachelor’s degree.
In the UK, longer apprenticeships like engineering and nursing allow some degrees to be coterminous: degrees awarded when apprentices “graduate” to regular employees. (UK three-year bachelor’s degrees make this easier.) But many UK apprenticeship degrees – and the fastest growing programs – are a result of universities glomming onto apprenticeship as a way to juice enrollment.
These “apprenticeship degrees” involve luring apprentices with a “best of both worlds” promise, then offering off-the-shelf online degrees with little connection to the apprenticeship itself. Critically, the degree isn’t granted at apprenticeship-end. For example, supermarket chain Morrisons is seeking retail degree apprentices to help manage stores. So while apprentices ensure shelves are properly stocked, they “work towards a degree” at University of Bradford: an online bachelor’s degree in management.
What’s happening here? Universities like Bradford see how attractive apprenticeships are for students and, as part of a B2B enrollment strategy, offer discounted online programs to employers like Morrisons for packaging into “apprenticeship degrees.” (Like U.S. tuition assistance programs, employers cover the cost.) But unless apprentices whiz through their online degrees at light speed, they won’t complete by apprenticeship-end. So it will be up to newly minted assistant store managers to keep plugging away on courses and credits, or not.
Run-of-the-mill online degrees pushed as “degree apprenticeships” aren’t much more than clever marketing, appealing to aspiring career launchers (and their parents) who want the best of both worlds. Beneficiaries are employers and universities, but probably not apprentices.
Given their broad appeal and infinite return on investment (i.e., apprentices don’t pay, they get paid), U.S. apprenticeships are about to have a moment. As they grow in number and size, watch for policymakers to argue both worlds-ism and push for apprenticeship degrees. Rhode Island just passed a bill requiring state colleges to figure out how to award credit to apprentices. But where there’s opportunity, there’s also opportunism. So also look for enrollment-hungry universities to take advantage by pushing existing online programs on employers and apprentices. It’s already happening at insurer Zurich North America where the company pays for apprentices to enroll in online degrees only tangentially related to the job: off-the-shelf programs in business administration as well as cyber + data security technology. Zurich’s apprenticeship program is terrific. But is it an apprenticeship degree?
If we want both worlds – if we want real apprenticeship degrees – we need to combine both worlds: setting up and running apprenticeship programs for employers (including – critically – marketing and selling to employers) as well as awarding degrees. Could colleges and universities do it? They have the degree part down. But setting up and running apprenticeship programs (and especially selling them) isn’t a core competency of any U.S. accredited postsecondary institution. Remember, apprenticeship degrees are apprenticeships first, which means jobs first. The first step in any apprenticeship is convincing an employer to hire an apprentice (by definition, a less productive employee for an extended period of time) – a steep hill to climb. Either that or serving as the employer of record until the apprentice becomes productive. Anyway, for any apprenticeship degree, the job horse needs to go before the degree cart.
Because the UK is so far ahead on apprenticeships (as a percentage of the workforce, UK apprentices are 8x the U.S.), we’re seeing another British invasion. Leading the charge – the Beatles of apprenticeship (and as we’ll see, apprenticeship degrees) – is Multiverse. Founded by Euan Blair in 2016 to create the Ivy League of apprenticeships (but more inclusive and scalable than the Ivy League), Multiverse sets up and runs apprenticeship programs for employers: recruiting, screening, and matching candidates with companies in areas like digital marketing, software development, and data. Some candidates have degrees, some don’t, and some are experienced workers who require reskilling. Then while Multiverse provides classroom training, mentoring, a buddy system, and a community program helping apprentices develop communication and leadership skills, employers hire apprentices (at a discount to regular entry-level workers) and provide on-the-job training. 93% of Multiverse apprentices continue on at their employers after completing apprenticeships. Major UK clients include Jaguar Land Rover, Barclays, and Rolls Royce. Two years ago, Multiverse landed at JFK to launch apprenticeships at high-profile clients like Verizon, Google, Cisco, and Box. The market is recognizing Multiverse’s substantial progress; last year, Multiverse became the first UK unicorn in the education, edtech, or workforce sector, raising $220 million at a $1.7 billion valuation.
Because Multiverse saw apprenticeship degrees becoming a bit of a sham – apprenticeships real, degrees not so much – it applied for degree-awarding authority in the UK. The idea was to deliver real apprenticeship degrees: fully integrate apprenticeship classroom instruction with degree coursework and award degrees upon completion of apprenticeships. The UK government agreed with the degreed, and Multiverse became the world’s first degree-conferring apprenticeship service provider. According to Blair, unlike academic degrees, Multiverse’s applied degrees “signify what you can do, not just what you know.”
Multiverse’s approach is a surefire path to meaningful apprenticeship degrees: apprenticeship service providers with the authority to award degrees. This is essentially the journey taken by Reach, a K-12 teacher alternative certification program that recently gained accreditation as Reach University (see President Joe Ross’s description of Reach’s apprenticeship degrees for teachers). The alternative is convincing partner colleges to submit and contort online degree programs so they: (1) are specific to each apprenticeship career pathway; (2) fully integrate apprenticeship classroom training; and (3) recognize some on-the-job training and prior learning for credit. All this would require faculty approval – not for the faint-of-heart postsecondary institution. Perhaps the largest, most centralized, and most innovative online universities will develop an interest (i.e., WGU, SNHU, ASU), but probably not before apprenticeship service providers can send them enough volume to make it worth their while. Meanwhile, the largest apprenticeship service provider has already decided to go it alone. So even if you squint, it’s hard to see many colleges playing a big role in apprenticeship degrees. Most will either play a passive and unwitting role or become prime movers in higher education’s next tuition grab scheme.
The good news is that, properly constructed, apprenticeship degrees can benefit everyone: apprentices get a job, a career pathway, and a relevant + durable credential; employers reduce entry-level churn and develop future leaders; degree programs get more students.
While everyone likes apprenticeships, everyone will love apprenticeship degrees. But only if they’re real. If not properly constructed, apprenticeship degrees will be more Rutles than Beatles, more Monty Python than Superman.