Almost nothing about American higher education surprises me anymore. But here’s one: the women who married John Lennon and Paul McCartney attended the same college. In 1952, Yoko Ono, newly arrived from Tokyo, spent a year at Sarah Lawrence College in bucolic Yonkers, NY. In 1960, Linda Eastman enrolled at Sarah Lawrence before transferring to University of Arizona. While neither graduated, I’m wondering why Sarah Lawrence hasn’t at least attempted a marketing campaign along the lines of Enroll at Sarah Lawrence and Marry a Beatle.
If you can’t marry a Beatle, at least try to manage them. That’s what Brian Epstein did with world historical results. Epstein managed his family’s record store in downtown Liverpool and after convincing the exciting but struggling group he could help them land a record contract, worked Eight Days a Week to convince A&R men the Beatles were worth listening to. The hard part was that the UK had only two record companies of note: Decca and EMI. Epstein got the Beatles a Decca audition, leading Decca to famously reject the most successful group of all time. With EMI, Epstein tried many different doors, including meeting with George Martin, head of EMI’s Parlophone label, and playing a homemade recording that left him “unmoved.”
In the end, the industry-transforming relationship between the Beatles and EMI was founded on a confluence of events nearly as bizarre as the Sarah Lawrence thing: (1) following repeated rejections by various EMI producers, EMI’s affiliated song publisher liked Lennon-McCartney original Like Dreamers Do enough to want to publish it and Epstein conditioned agreement on a record contract; and (2) the head of EMI just learned that George Martin had attended an out-of-town conference with his secretary and correctly suspected an affair. Knowing Martin had previously turned down the Beatles, the EMI boss’s response was to pass passive-aggressive judgment and make him Carry That Weight by forcing him to record the group for Parlophone.
When Brian Epstein showed up at the Cavern for the first time, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison had been having serious doubts as to whether the band thing was going to lead anywhere. As the old saying goes, opportunity is where luck meets preparation. In this case, preparation was not only thousands of hours onstage together, but also a manager leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of a shared goal – opening the door for very good things to happen even through the strangest set of circumstances. For the Beatles, Epstein was a very effective intermediary: someone who did a great deal of legwork to make something out of nothing (well, not nothing in this case – so maybe Something out of something).
For those of us keen on dramatically expanding apprenticeships across the economy, the legend of Brian Epstein looms large. Because what America needs most is a thousand Epsteins of apprenticeship.
What is an apprenticeship intermediary? According to Urban Institute, they’re “nonprofit or for-profit organizations, including government agencies, community colleges or high schools, and small and large businesses that play a critical connecting role between other organizations and systems to advance the design, registration, and implementation of apprenticeship programs.”
Intermediaries are essential for apprenticeship expansion because apprenticeships are expensive: it costs a lot to transform an untrained, unproductive resource into a productive one. Companies need to: Hire or assign someone to run the program Source and screen high-potential (but untrained) talent Arrange for delivery of Related Technical Instruction (RTI) Pay for training Assign mentors and pay them (presumably extra) And most expensive: hire apprentices + pay wages while they remain unproductive
And then there’s the cost of registering the apprenticeship, which involves producing a bevy of documents only a bureaucrat could love. Siemens USA reportedly invests $170K per apprentice (including wages) – more than any company is willing to pay, except perhaps a German subsidiary.
It turns out the reason the UK and Australia are 7x the U.S. in apprentices per capita is that both have systematically invested in establishing a robust ecosystem of intermediaries to spend the money and do the work of organizing and operating apprenticeship programs. We don’t expect employers to run their own schools. Why should we expect them to run their own apprenticeship programs without any help?
The good news is that DOL funding of intermediaries is way up. As recently as 2015, the DOL’s Office of Apprenticeship had an annual budget of $30M, most of which could be distributed as grants to expand apprenticeship. We’re now at a different level; $235 million was appropriated in FY 2022 and the Biden administration’s latest FY 2023 budget requested $303 million.
But all apprenticeship intermediaries are not created equal. Urban distinguishes between low-intervention intermediaries and high-intervention intermediaries:
Low-intervention activities in which intermediaries engage within the apprenticeship ecosystem could include building awareness, convening and connecting relevant actors, and providing high-level advice. High-intervention activities could include active roles in designing and registering programs; recruiting, coaching, and monitoring apprentices’ progress; providing training and instruction; and serving as the employer of record.
It’s fitting that apprenticeships are still identified with construction because building apprenticeships is an infrastructure play. There aren’t nearly enough apprenticeship programs. And as I’ve said before, apprenticeships start and end with jobs. Apprenticeships are jobs. If it’s not a paying job, it’s not an apprenticeship; it’s just training.
High-intervention intermediaries do the work of organizing and operating apprenticeship programs and make it much easier for companies to say yes to hiring an apprentice. Increasingly, high-intervention intermediaries create apprenticeship jobs and serve as the employer of record. In contrast, low-intervention intermediaries mostly stand on the sidelines and cheer when an apprentice is hired. So while high-intervention intermediaries are Brian Epsteins of apprenticeship, low-intervention intermediaries are like the Beatles first manager, Allan Williams, who got them a gig backing a local stripper named Janice.
While funding is up, DOL seems unable to distinguish between Brian Epstein and Allan Williams. In 2016, DOL awarded $20M to 14 intermediaries. Grantees included the AFL-CIO, North America’s Building Trades Union (NABTU), and the other (good) NRA: the National Restaurant Association.
Unfortunately, functions performed were limited to low-intervention activities like marketing the concept of apprenticeship to employers and assistance with registration. For example, the NRA “made group presentations… to American Hotel and Lodging Association committees and councils and held one-on-one meetings with large employers such as Hilton, Marriot, and Days Inn.” Grantee AHIMA Foundation “conducted outreach through national conferences, health care apprenticeship accelerator meetings, and its network of organizations dealing with health information management.” Grantee Healthcare Career Advancement Program (H-CAP) “used its board to identify employer and organizational leads and also contacted national and state organizations.” Only two of the 14 intermediaries performed any functions that could be classified as high-intervention.
DOL confusion isn’t limited to this one grant. Consider the following major apprenticeship grant programs:
Reviewing all recipients of $740M in DOL apprenticeship grants – over 100 grantees in total – I count only five high-intervention intermediaries: Apprenti, CareerWise, Wireless Infrastructure Association, Adaptive Construction Solutions, and the Electrical Training Alliance. Every other grant recipient was a low-intervention intermediary falling into the following categories: community colleges; foundations; chambers of commerce; state and local workforce boards or economic development units.
Here’s the list of top grantees since 2015:
With the exception of the Electrical Training Alliance – an intermediary that organizes apprenticeships for members and delivers RTI – the only jobs we can be certain these low-intervention intermediaries created are community colleges administrators of DOL grants. The result: paperwork and coordination. But no community colleges hire apprentices. And as far as I can tell, none of these community college grantees proactively organize apprenticeships, although I’m sure there were a lot of meetings trying to convince employers.
Because companies have hundreds of decisions points around whether to launch apprenticeship programs, ability to persuade is limited when you’re not doing much of the heavy lifting. The work of high-intervention intermediaries maximizes the likelihood of a happy coincidence, like Epstein did for the Beatles.
The silver lining is that high-intervention intermediaries are emerging with increasing frequency. Apprenticeships for America (AFA) is a new national apprenticeship industry association uniting high-intervention intermediaries of all stripes, from nonprofits like CareerWise and YearUp, to for-profit apprenticeship service providers like Multiverse, to industry associations like Apprenti and Wireless Infrastructure Association, to Hire-Train-Deploy companies like Optimum Healthcare IT, Cloud for Good, and Helios. AFA already has 70 members in its Network. These intermediaries focus on actually building and running apprenticeships rather than completing DOL grant applications. But to date, fuel for high-intervention intermediaries has been limited to philanthropy and client sales.
If DOL is serious about apprenticeship – and in a world where digital transformation puts a massive premium on learning-by-doing, it should be deadly serious – it needs to stop monkeying around and funding grant administration jobs at community colleges.
Even better: instead of trying to pick winners, why not provide reliable, predictable formula funding for apprenticeship like we do for college (e.g., Pell Grants, Federal Student Aid program). Imagine if we funded college the way we currently fund apprenticeship. Instead of Pell Grants and Stafford loans allowing colleges to set up shop knowing all they need to do is attract interested students, the Department of Education would select a fixed number of colleges a year to receive funding. Other colleges would be relegated to the whims of philanthropy or only serving rich students. Meanwhile, there’d be little connection between government-selected winners and student outcomes (come to think of it, that’s what we have now).
The answer to the question of why we can’t have nice (apprenticeship) things is a misguided, hand-waving, Helter Skelter, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da approach to apprenticeship funding. Let It Be is not a strategy. If we want an apprenticeship Revolution, if we want apprenticeship to become a viable alternative to hard-to-afford, hard-to-complete college degrees, We Can Work It Out by starting to support actual apprenticeships.