Is It An Apprenticeship?

A century ago, the trauma of war and pandemic gave rise to the frivolous but culturally important Roaring Twenties. In the dumbed-down 21st century, pandemic and war have produced Netflix’s Is It Cake? In what may be the first television program based entirely on a meme, Is It Cake? is a competition to see which baker can bake the most hyper-realistic cakes. Contestants make cakes that look like tacos, handbags, and rubber ducks, then place them amidst decoys so celebrity(ish) judges will be fooled when asked by the host: Is It Cake?

Is It Cake? may be many things, but at a time when few viewers need additional complication, it is not overcomplicated. That may be why it soared to the top of Netflix’s most streamed list before being knocked out by the premiere of Bridgerton season 2. The cakes themselves look delicious, but the real skill involves modeling chocolate, fondant, and coloring to make a shoe cake look more like a shoe than an actual shoe, or to put fake grommets in a bucket hat/cake. From a distance, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference and the judges usually find themselves mistaking cakes for hats. There are few things more American than simultaneously beholding the skill of the bakers and the stupidity of the conceit.

While we watch Is It Cake?, following Covid’s acceleration of digital transformation, we’re largely taking a Let Them Eat Cake approach to those left behind by a hyper-realistic labor market. With millions of unfilled good tech and tech-oriented jobs inaccessible due to both skill and experience gaps, there’s only one tool in the education/training/workforce arsenal with sufficient force to bring labor supply and demand back into balance. It’s not a degree or bootcamp or training program. And it’s definitely not an unpaid internship. The only model that solves for skills and experience in a single, transfer-less, transition-less bound is apprenticeship.

This is why there’s nearly as much hoopla around apprenticeships as fake cakes. In all my education and workforce travels, I haven’t met anyone not in favor of more apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are one of the vanishingly few issues that command support from both sides of the aisle. Back in the day, the Obama Administration made apprenticeships a priority, awarding $175M in grants in 2015 and investing $90 million the following year. Tom Perez, Secretary of Labor under President Obama, estimated that “for every taxpayer dollar invested in apprenticeship programs, we see $27 in returns.” Increasing apprenticeships by an order of magnitude was an early goal of the Trump administration, and funding did increase substantially before progress was completely derailed by a verkakte Ivanka idea. President Biden has also increased funding for apprenticeships, announcing an additional $113M grant.

The unique combination of simultaneously addressing skill and experience gaps creates remarkable outcomes. Completing an apprenticeship yields nearly $250,000 in additional lifetime income. And for the apprentice, return on investment is infinite as no one’s charging exorbitant (or any) tuition. Not surprisingly, apprentices generally rate their experience much more positively than college graduates.

The resulting apprenticeship fever has produced an onslaught of apprenticeship lookalikes. You may have heard about pre-apprenticeship programs. There’s also a vibrant youth apprenticeship movement. And finally there are degree apprenticeships (in the UK, but making their way across the pond). So with an alphabet soup of apprenticeship wannabes crowding the conversation, I ask this question somewhat more sincerely than the snarky host of Is It Cake? – Is it an apprenticeship?


Unlike cakes, apprenticeships couldn’t be easier to identify. While many people might think they know an apprentice when they see one – including contestants on a TV show that was even dumber (and, as it turned out, pernicious) – you’re not an apprentice unless and until you’re hired as an employee by an actual employer. Unlike pre-apprenticeships and youth apprenticeships, real apprenticeships start with a job. It’s either a job or it isn’t. Did you go through a hiring process? Are you receiving a paycheck? Is the employer paying payroll taxes? Figuring out whether it’s an apprenticeship is a lot easier than mucking about with cakes.

Apprentices are employees hired by an employer and have much more in common with other employees than with students. In fact, there are only two differences between apprentices and other entry-level employees. First, apprentices receive on-the-job training (OJT) from experienced mentors. Second, there’s a prescribed program of Related Technical Instruction (RTI) for formal skill building.

Apprentices are typically on the job 3-4 days a week, with 1-2 days in a classroom for RTI. So like other entry-level employees, apprentices are expected to be somewhat productive in their role from early in their tenure. This helps explains why apprenticeships haven’t taken off on their own, and why America’s current percentage of apprentices/total workforce is below where we were after World War II and only one-eighth the level of the UK and Australia. When they’re not in the classroom, it’s clear what role apprentices can play from the get-go in skilled trades like welding and electrician: assisting, holding tools. It’s equally unclear what a brand new apprentice tier I cybersecurity analyst can do, or an untrained apprentice Salesforce administrator. Digital jobs don’t lend themselves to apprentices looking over the shoulder of experienced workers 3-4 days per week. A secondary issue is the time and effort demanded of mentors who may find themselves in frequent 1:1 back-and-forths with apprentices: hard on mentors, but fantastic for apprentices. (A decade ago, Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity report called these interactions “especially effective in meeting the developmental needs of young people [and] provide a structure to support the transition from adolescence to adulthood lacking for the majority of young people in the U.S.”)

Sadly, even though modern apprenticeships are less onerous than they were in the middle ages (apprentices living under their employers’ roofs), we don’t see thousands of employers running around trying to figure out how to launch apprenticeship programs. I’ve spent quality time in HR circles – some respectable – and that’s not a thing. The combination of apprenticeship enthusiasm + employer lacuna has created a vacuum into which have stepped well-meaning educational institutions, think tanks, nonprofits, and governments offering up apprenticeship lookalikes. But they’re not apprenticeships. And they may be complicating and confusing the issue.

The nub is that apprenticeships are jobs and only employers are capable of creating them. So unlike college or bootcamps or workforce training programs, apprenticeships are the only tool in the education/training/workforce arsenal that educational institutions, think tanks, nonprofits, and governments can’t wield (unless they act in their capacity as employers, which – to date – they have not).


If we care about expanding apprenticeships across the economy, the question isn’t how schools, think tanks, nonprofits, and governments can spawn more pre-apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, and degree apprenticeships. Given the primacy of employment and employers for apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeships and youth apprenticeships obscure the fundamental question of how to incentivize more employers to hire apprentices and by so doing create real apprenticeship programs. I have a few modest ideas, none of which involve colleges, universities, or think tanks.

1. At least cover the cost of the training
While registration of apprenticeships (or the equivalent) in other developed countries results in automatic funding for RTI, the U.S. has not yet connected registration with funding. Instead, DOL registration allows employers to seek state approval, which then allows them to go on bended knee to state and local workforce boards to compete for scarce WIOA funding ( less than 1/100 the level of federal funding for colleges and universities). Fun!

2. Make registration somewhat less nightmarish
It still takes way too long to register and begin operating an apprenticeship program. Broken supply chains attracted Biden administration attention to the lack of truckers and the result was a reduction in registration time for new trucking apprenticeships from eight months to 48 days. But what about apprenticeships in every other sector? Having skill standards for a wide array of occupations could streamline the registration process.

3. Promote apprenticeships
While the brand of four-year college remains firmly ensconsed in the minds and hearts of America’s parents, no one is seriously promoting apprenticeships as an alternative. If policymakers think apprenticeships are a good thing, they should allocate real dollars to market them. And while they’re at it, require every government agency to launch programs, acting like the major employers they are. It’s simply not enough to have the Secretary of Labor show up at the launch of another tiny non-digital apprenticeship program.

4. Foster a vibrant ecosystem of intermediaries
Where apprenticeships are common – Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and in the U.S. construction and industrial trades – an intermediary usually organizes and runs the program and acts as the employer of record before ultimate employers are asked to make hiring decisions. Intermediaries – most often an industry association or a union – perform one or more (or all) of the functions required of an employer to create an apprenticeship program i.e., recruit, hire, RTI, OJT, mentoring.

Because few U.S. employers are actively seeking help to launch them, apprenticeships are not bought. Apprenticeships are sold. And in the countries that are way ahead of the U.S. in expanding apprenticeships to the digital economy – the UK and Australia – it’s clear who’s doing the selling. In the UK, it’s about 1,000 apprenticeship service providers (ASPs) organizing, operating, and selling apprenticeships to employers. In Australia, it’s group training organizations (GTOs): nonprofits that perform all of the aforementioned functions save on-the-job training.

How did these intermediaries come into being? Government policies and funding. But until now the critical role of apprenticeship intermediaries has escaped American policymakers. No longer. Last month, a new national nonprofit called Apprenticeships for America launched with the stated objective of focusing apprenticeship policy and funding on the seminal importance of intermediaries. Intermediaries can be industry associations like in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, nonprofit GTOs like in Australia, or entrepreneurial nonprofits like Apprenti, CareerWise, and Year Up. They can be for-profit like many of the UK’s ASPs (including Multiverse, now in the U.S.), or Achieve’s Hire-Train-Deploy companies like Optimum Healthcare IT (healthcare IT), Cloud for Good (Salesforce), Metmox (cybersecurity), Ro Health (nurses, behavioral health), and SkillStorm (software development). Or they can be public. South Carolina has done more than any other state to expand apprenticeships. And much of the credit belongs to an intermediary established by the state: Apprenticeship Carolina.


Because apprenticeships are jobs with clear career trajectories, they’re the only pathway to socioeconomic mobility that truly level the playing field. And that couldn’t be more important in the tightest labor market any of us have ever seen (11.3M unfilled jobs, including millions of good digital jobs) and where, as the Kapor Center and NAACP reported last month, Blacks only occupy 3.7% of tech jobs at large employers (vs. 13% of the overall workforce) – up just 1% since 2014.

With apprenticeships a scarce resource, no one should look a gift horse in the mouth. But another $113M grant won’t move the needle. It’s not incremental change that we need. It’s systemic change. And as Australia and the UK have shown, the quickest path to systemic change is to establish incentives for current intermediaries to go further, faster, and – more important – meaningful incentives for potential high-impact intermediaries who don’t yet realize their power. (I’m talking about you Manpower, Adecco, Allegis, Randstad, Robert Half, and Kelly. You could begin recruiting and hiring millions of apprentices, and providing RTI and mentoring on behalf of your hundreds of thousands of talent-starved clients. You just might need an incentive to get started.)

When it comes to apprenticeships, we shouldn’t be satisfied with cakes disguised as college or training programs. That’s the workforce equivalent of cupcakes. Apprenticeships are jobs and renewing American prosperity for all demands whole, real cakes.