Workers Need 21st Century Skills. Here Are Five Ways to Help

Workers Need 21st Century Skills. Here Are Five Ways to Help

Header 5 Steps To Credentials

We are getting really good at producing robots. Thanks to technological advances, robots now stock warehouses in a quarter of the time humans do, and they clean homes, diffuse bombs, and prune crops as well.1 But what’s our track record on producing well-trained human workers?

Not nearly good enough.

Right now, there are nearly seven million job openings, millions of which are middle class jobs. But, as we noted in Third Way’s A New Cause, not enough American workers have the right mix of skills to fill those jobs right now and new ones in the decades ahead.2 Specifically, middle-skill jobs are the types of occupations that require training beyond a high school diploma but short of a four-year degree. Looking broadly, these occupations comprise 53% of the jobs in the United States, but only 43% of workers are trained at this level.3

The key to helping more workers fill these jobs and have an opportunity to earn a good life is significantly increasing the number of people with postsecondary credentials—from certificate and apprenticeship programs to boot camps and occupational licenses. In this memo, we lay out five policy recommendations that Congress can pursue right now to vastly increase the number of American workers with credentials.

Policy #1: Boost apprenticeships for women

Apprenticeships are a critical pathway that can give millions of Americans the opportunity to earn a middle class life. As detailed in a recent Third Way report, they allow workers to earn while they learn and provide a better-trained, more reliable workforce for employers.4

Yet women participate far less in apprenticeships than men. Women only account for 7% of all apprenticeship participation, but they represent 47% of the United States workforce.5 Even though apprenticeships have traditionally been in male-dominated industries (e.g. construction), women still are proportionally underrepresented. For example, the construction industry is 9% female, but women only constitute 3% of apprenticeship participants.6

There are numerous reasons for this. Women who want to enter apprenticeships in male-dominated fields often encounter barriers such as sexual harassment, transportation to and from the program, discriminatory workplace cultures, and lack of available, quality childcare.7 Women who face any number of these difficulties may not be able to participate in or complete an apprenticeship. Take one of those issues: childcare. The average cost of childcare in the United States is just about $16,000 a year for a preschooler.8 Apprentices who are low income or sole breadwinners of their families may not be able to participate fully because of the lack of access to affordable, quality childcare.

Yet women participate far less in apprenticeships than men. Women only account for 7% of all apprenticeship participation, but they represent 47% of the United States workforce.

In 1992, Congress recognized the shortage of women in apprenticeships and nontraditional occupations as a problem. They created the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Training Occupations (WANTO) program to provide technical assistance to employers to boost the number of women in targeted industries. Then, in 2007, WANTO established the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Technical Assistance Grant.9 The annual grant (of $250,000 - $500,000) goes to up to six organizations to support increasing the number of women in apprenticeships.

Some of this work includes training women on how to operate in certain workplace cultures and enrolling in apprenticeship programs.10 West Virginia Women Work won a WANTO grant in 2017 to support two new pre-apprenticeship programs for women in construction and advanced manufacturing.11 In rural Maine, some counties suffer from higher travel and training costs for registered apprentices because of the geography of the state. To address that issue, the Aroostook County Action Program (ACAP) and Washington Hancock Community Agency (WHCA), are collaborating to get 70% of their 100-person cohort into a registered apprenticeship by using the WANTO grant to cover technical assistance.12

WANTO is an important program but suffers from two main challenges: it has scarce resources and the program cannot help with childcare, one of the biggest barriers women face in participating in apprenticeships. For example, in 2017, only six local apprenticeship intermediaries received funding and no funds covered childcare.13 We recommend increasing funding to allow the program to help more women in more places throughout the country. Further, WANTO should help defray the cost of childcare for women who are part of grant recipient programs. Funding could be distributed to eligible apprentices through an FSA card. Inadequate childcare should not be a reason women don’t participate in apprenticeships; WANTO can help remove that barrier so women don’t have to pick between their kids and their careers.14

Policy #2: Increase transparency of credential programs

From buying a refrigerator to buying a car, consumers are often flooded with data to help inform their purchase. Energy consumption per year, freezer features, and water dispenser options help inform buyers making purchases—as does fuel efficiency, air-bag location, and instrument panel options. This data, along with user reviews, allows people to make smart decisions on their purchases.

Why is it, then, that data is completely lacking for people trying to invest in a professional credential?

Take apprenticeships, for example. Currently, the US Department of Labor only collects information on registered apprenticeships—from which 64,000 people graduated last year.15 This data includes how many people are participating, how many actually complete the program, and what types of industries are participating. While this information is helpful and should continue to be collected, the data is isolated and leaves out other comparable programs. From licenses to certifications and certificates, workers are contributing time and financial resources to programs—but they are often flying blind because they cannot adequately compare available options. For example, according to Credential Engine, “less than 1% of what Glassdoor labeled as apprenticeships also appeared on the official ApprenticeshipUSA database.”16 Because of that, up to 1 million people could be participating in unregistered apprenticeships and hundreds of thousands more in other credential programs without adequate quality data.17

Millennials are currently 35% of the workforce and have broken the norms of the traditional workplace.

Workers need clear and easily accessible information about all credential programs to ensure they are wisely investing their time and resources. In addition, this data is even more critical as new programs are developed for new occupations. For example, the Department of Labor has identified 53 occupations in the health care sector alone that can leverage apprenticeships.18 Workers should be able to look at all available choices and decide on which would give them the best opportunity to earn a good life.

Expanding data in education already has bipartisan support. The College Transparency Act of 2017 (CTA) introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) would overturn a previous ban on student unit level data to allow for more data to be collected and published about colleges.19 This information, including retention and completion statistics, would greatly inform students’ decisions. There are also separate efforts like the non-profit Credential Engine that are working to increase transparency specifically in the credential space.

We should build on these important efforts. To help workers make more informed choices about their skills training, the federal government needs to expand the data they collect to include non-degree credentials. Separate from the Hatch-Warren-Cassidy-Whitehouse effort, we must collect quality data across both registered and non-registered apprenticeships as well as other credential programs. This data could include metrics such as potential to lead to employment in the local area, enable the worker to benefit from additional education in the future, and lead to wage increases in the future. Data should also evaluate a program’s ability to effectively serve all workers—including people of color, those with disabilities, and the long-term unemployed, among others.

Policy #3: Modernize American Jobs Centers

Creating more credentials for all Americans means updating the mechanisms that help Americans get jobs in the first place. Our changing workforce requires a different type of support that can handle five different generations of Americans in one labor market that is constantly changing.20

For example, millennials are currently 35% of the workforce and have broken the norms of the traditional workplace.21 The tens of millions of workers of this generation, best known for job-hopping and gig work, require different assistance when exploring careers.22 When paired with Gen X, Boomers, and others in the workplace, the American job market needs to handle the least homogenous group of workers ever.23 So one-size-fits-all job matching simply will not work.

That is where American Job Centers come in. Established in the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, the American Job Centers (AJCs) form a network of “one stop career centers” funded by the federal government.24 Put another way, the AJCs provide resources for individuals who are in need of career help, ranging from resume writing to training and education for new credentials.25 However, a recent report from the US Governmental Accountability Office found that AJCs are not currently equipped to handle the quick-changing nature of the modern workforce and nontraditional workers.26

To modernize the existing AJCs based on the needs of the 21st century economy, the centers need to improve how they match the skills people have with the jobs and credentials those people need. For example, the Urban Institute and the Department of Labor have developed a Competency-Based Education framework for registered apprenticeships that emphasizes the skills and abilities that people bring to the workforce.27 Under this proposed model, a woman could walk into an AJC, demonstrate that she was skilled in project management and problem solving, and then be placed with an employer or certification program that refines those skills through on-the-job training.

In order to make that a reality, American Job Centers should enforce, modernize, and nationalize the ability-based model. The federal government should allocate grants to each state workforce board for revamping the job centers to focus on long-term skills and better address some of the skills gaps we see today. This funding can go toward updated equipment, new skills-based analysis tests, and trained employees who can interpret the skills that match best with programs and employers in the area.

Policy #4: Improve 21st century apprenticeship marketing

Even though apprenticeships offer a path toward a middle class life, they don’t always have the best brand around the kitchen table. In a new survey from New America, 83% of respondents believe in extra government funding for apprenticeships but only 26% of the group said they would recommend apprenticeships for a child in their life.28 Apprenticeship expert Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute says that US apprenticeships carry a stigma that hinders their growth.29 This explains why people support apprenticeships but may not choose it for people close to them.

Early exposure to apprenticeships can change that perception. In Switzerland, for example, 70% of teenagers participate in apprenticeships, making the model common amongst people beginning their careers.30 Part of the reason for this is that the Swiss apprenticeship system exposes students as young as 14 to apprenticeship as a pathway in their career.31 This is very different from the situation in the United States where individuals do not get exposure to apprenticeships early, and that training route is not typically available until the last year of high school—if at all.32

There has been some federal interest in changing this stigma. In July 2018, Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) and Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) introduced HR 6425, the APPRENTICE Act that provides grants to support the expansion, awareness, and reputation of apprenticeships.33 Under this legislation, the Department of Labor would provide grants of up to $100,000 directly to recognized apprenticeship programs. This is an important step, and policymakers should embrace it.

RAND found that “Inmates who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars—from remedial math to vocational auto shop to college-level courses—are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison.”

But we shouldn’t stop there. Additional funds should also be provided to high schools to expand the awareness and respect of apprenticeships. Using the Davis/Gutherie model, $100,000 grants should be made available directly to school districts. Schools with high rates of poverty and high minority populations must be prioritized for this grant funding which could include direct marketing, the dissemination of educational information, and visits to apprenticeship sites. Equitable distribution must be a priority to ensure that no one is left out of the conversation about apprenticeships.

Policy #5: Help prison lead to a profession

We are wasting a tremendous amount of economic opportunity behind bars. Currently, 2.3 million people are locked up in the American criminal justice system at state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, immigration detention facilities, and more.34 What if we could ensure that more incarcerated individuals could re-enter the workforce upon release with relevant credentials for in-demand jobs? The key is a national commitment to upskilling the men and women who are currently serving time in prison.

The need is vast. Forty-one percent of incarcerated individuals do not have a high school diploma or GED.35 Only 44% of private prisons and 7% of jails offer vocational training, and only 27% of state prisons offer college courses.36 This leaves too many inmates without access to the skills that could help them upon release so they could return to the workforce.

Education programs behind bars have the ability to radically change the status quo. RAND found that “Inmates who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars—from remedial math to vocational auto shop to college-level courses—are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison.”37 While our prison system needs a litany of reforms—including helping more people get GEDs, learn the English language, and more support for drug rehabilitation—there needs to be a significant effort to help incarcerated individuals get credentials for in-demand occupations.

In order to do that, all public and private correctional facilities in the United States should be required to offer training programs to help those who are incarcerated get high-quality credentials beyond high school for in-demand occupations. Additional federal funding is needed to prevent reductions in other areas of the corrections system (such as funding toward food and security). Federal resources should go toward qualified programs within the prison system that place individuals on a credential track as soon as their sentence starts as well as offer other training opportunities. In addition, funding should be available for private and non-profit intermediaries who serve a critical role linking education providers, employers, and populations of workers. Prisons that can show a history of providing incarcerated individuals with high-quality credentials should be eligible for additional funding for vocational training.

  • 21st Century Jobs33


  1. Hill, Catey. “10 Jobs Robots Already Do Better Than You.” Market Watch. 30 June 2017. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary,” 6.9 million job openings as of July 2018. Available at: Accessed 26 October 2018.

  3. Middle Skill Jobs. “United States’ Forgotten Middle.” The National Skills Coalition. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  4. Amoyaw, May and David Brown. “Apprenticeship America: An Idea to Reinvent Postsecondary Skills for the Digital Age.” Third Way. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  5. Love, Ivy. “Everything You WANTO Know About Women in Apprenticeship.” New America. 25 July 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  6. Hanks, Angela, et al. “The Apprenticeship Wage and Participation Gap.” 07 Jul 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  7. Kobes, Deborah. “Expanding the Path to Apprenticeships for Women and Minorities.” 04 Nov 2015. Accessed 26 October 2018. 

  8. “New Interactive Reveals the True Cost of Quality Early Childhood Education in Each U.S. State.” Press Release, New America, 14 Feb 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  9. United States, Congress, Senate. “Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act.” 102nd Congress, 2nd Session. October 27th, 1992.

  10. United States, Department of Labor. Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Grant. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  11. United States, Department of Labor. West Virginia Women Work, Inc. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  12. United States, Department of Labor. Aroostook County Action Program, Inc. and Washington Hancock Community Agency. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  13. “U.S. Department of Labor Awards Nearly $1.5 Million for Women in Apprenticeships and Nontraditional Occupations.” Press Release, United States Department of Labor, 21 Sept 2017. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  14. Parker, Kim. “Women More than Men Adjust their Careers for Family Life.” Pew Research Center. 01 Oct 2015. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  15. United States, Department of Labor. Registered Apprenticeship National Results Fiscal Year 2017. 08 Apr 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  16. “Counting U.S. Secondary and Postsecondary Credentials. Credential Engine. April 2018. Accessed 02 Aug 2018. Available at: Accessed 26 October 2018.

  17. Lerman, Robert. “Training Tomorrow’s Workforce: Community College and Apprenticeship as Collaborative Routes to Rewarding Careers.” Center for American Progress. Dec 2009. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  18. Mauldin, Bronwyn. “Apprenticeships in the Healthcare Industry.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 31 Oct 2011. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  19. United States, Congress, Senate. “College Transparency Act.” 115th Congress, 1st Session. May 15, 2017.

  20. Moss, Desda. “5 Generations 7 Values = Endless Opportunities.” Society for Human Resources Management. 20 Jun 2017. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  21. Fry, Richard. “Millennials are the Largest Generation in the U.S. Labor Force.” Pew Research Center. 11 Apr 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  22. United States, Congress, Senate, Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight, Committee on Finance. “Workforce Training: DOL Can Better Share Information on Services for On-Demand, or Gig Workers.” 115th Congress, 1st Session, Government Accountability Office, 2017. Available at: Accessed 26 October 2018.

  23. Bachman, Daniel and Patricia Buckley. “Meet the US workforce of the future: Older, more diverse, and more educated.” Deloitte Review, Issue 21. 31 Jul 2017. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  24. Holcomb, Pamela and Linda Rosenberg. “Institutional Analysis of American Job Centers.” Mathematica Policy Research. 2013-2016. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  25. Available at:

  26. United States, Congress, Senate, Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight, Committee on Finance. “Workforce Training: DOL Can Better Share Information on Services for On-Demand, or Gig Workers.” 115th Congress, 1st Session, Government Accountability Office, 2017. Available at: Accessed 26 October 2018.

  27. Urban Institute. “Competancy-Based Occupational Frameworks for Registered Apprenticeships. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  28. Palmer, Iris. “What Americans Think of Apprenticeship.” New America. 14 Mar 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  29. Lerman, Robert. “Expanding Apprenticeship Opportunities in the United States.” The Brookings Institution. 19 Jun 2014. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  30. Hoffman, Nancy. “Apprenticeships Ensure That Young People in Switzerland are Employable.” Quartz, 10 Sep 2013, Accessed 26 October 2018.

  31. The Embassy of Switzerland in the United States of America. “Earn While You Learn: Switzerland’s Vocational Education and Training System, A Model for Apprenticeships in the United States.” Available at: Accessed 26 October 2018.

  32. Parton, Brent. “Youth Apprenticeship in America Today: Connecting High School Students to Apprenticeship.” New America. December 2017. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  33. United States, Congress, House. Accessing Professional Partnerships and Resources to Enable Necessary Training and Improve Career Education Act 2018. 115th Congress, 1st Session. July 26th, 2018.

  34. Wagner, Peter and Wendy Sawyer. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018.” Prison Policy Initiative. 14 Mar 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  35. Bender, Kathleen. “Education Opportunities in Prison are Key to Reducing.” Center for American Progress. 02 March 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  36. Reich, Robert. “The Economic Impact of Prison Rehabilitation Programs.” University of Pennsylvania. 17 Aug 2017. Accessed 26 October 2018.

  37. Irving, Doug. “The Case for Correctional Education in U.S. Prisons.” The Rand Corporation. 03 Jan 2018. Accessed 26 October 2018.