How to Improve the Registered Apprenticeship System

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In 2021, there were over 593,000 registered apprentices enrolled across almost 27,000 registered apprenticeship programs in the United States. While that number has increased, participation still remains low. That’s because the registered system is hard on employers, doesn’t reach enough people, and is riddled with administrative and funding challenges. In this report, we explore the registered apprenticeship system and outline two dozen ideas to dramatically modernize the program.

From Atlanta to Phoenix to Buffalo, we’re seeing new bridges, semiconductor facilities, and clean energy resources reshaping the American economy. One big question remains: will the 109 million working-age adults without a college degree reap the economic benefits of these investments? Without a nationwide effort to ensure these workers have the skills and training to get new good-paying jobs, too many non-college workers will miss out, employers will struggle to hire, and economic growth will stall.

That’s why we must significantly bolster America’s workforce system—helping millions more workers get training. A foundation of that must be expanding and improving apprenticeships, which combine on-the-job and classroom training to help workers learn the skills they need in their chosen field. In the following report, we look into one essential tool with an outsized impact on the workforce system: registered apprenticeships. We lay out the current challenges and limitations of the registered apprenticeship system and how policymakers can address these shortfalls to better support both employers and workers.

What Is a Registered Apprenticeship?

The apprenticeship model includes on-the-job training alongside educational instruction to help workers “earn as they learn” in their chosen industry. While some companies may offer their own apprenticeship programs, registered apprenticeships receive the Department of Labor (DoL) seal of approval. Registered programs undergo a rigorous evaluation to ensure their quality. Because of that, they are proven models for providing workers the skills they need to land good jobs—graduates of these programs can expect to earn a starting pay of around $80,000.1

How Do You Register an Apprenticeship Program?

In order for an apprenticeship to be registered, there are several requirements that employers or sponsoring organizations must meet. These include:

  • The apprentice works full-time, receives benefits, and is a paid employee.
  • The apprenticeship program is either structured based on the length of time it takes to complete, or demonstration of a certain competency, or some combination of the two. A time-based program usually includes at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, and it is suggested that all apprentices receive 144 hours of related instruction.2
  • The apprentice must be paid at least minimum wage, with wages increasing as they move through the training program.
  • Job training is structured and planned. This means job-shadowing programs or internships do not qualify.

Once an employer or sponsoring organization designs their program to meet the above criteria, they must get the program approved. Currently, half the states run this process out of their own State Apprenticeship Agencies (SAAs), and the other half are approved at the federal level by DoL. The application process may look slightly different from state to state, but employers generally provide detail on the design of their program and how it meets the outlined standards.3 Programs are then initially approved on a provisional basis.

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How Many Registered Apprenticeships Are There in the United States?

In 2021, there were over 593,000 registered apprentices across almost 27,000 registered apprenticeship programs in the United States.4 And while the number of apprenticeships has significantly increased over the last decade, participation remains low—especially compared to countries like Germany, England, and Canada. To put the US system into perspective, while the United States has five times the working-aged population as England, England currently has an apprenticeship workforce that is 25% larger.5

What Are the Challenges of the Current System?

While the registered apprenticeship system is a key aspect of our nation’s training infrastructure, numerous challenges exist. These can be grouped into three key areas: it’s hard for employers, it’s not reaching enough people, and administrative and funding challenges.

1. Hard for Employers

Lack of familiarity: Apprenticeships are a very well-known pathway for workers in other countries, but awareness in the United States remains low.6 Additionally, there are several common misconceptions around apprenticeships. Many people believe that apprenticeships are only suited for jobs in the trades or that they operate like internships, which inhibits employers from pursuing their own programs.7

Little reciprocity across states: Right now, some apprenticeship programs are approved and handled by states, while other states cede the approval directly to DoL. This can create problems for multistate employers who must navigate different timelines and registration requirements. While all registered programs must abide by federal regulations, some states have more requirements, such as standards for educational instruction, the wage progression scale for apprentices, and the ratio of journeymen (experienced workers) to apprentices.8 Once a program is approved, employers must also navigate different reporting requirements and data systems depending on where the program is located.9

Burdensome registration process: The registration process for apprenticeships places a significant administrative burden on employers to understand varying regulations, collect data, complete paperwork, and meet standards that may look different from state to state or even city to city.10 All of this takes a considerable amount of time for employers to work through, which can be burdensome in a competitive hiring market. Although support staff at intermediary organizations often help employers navigate these processes, their expertise and level of support varies. Some regions have resources available to support employers and sponsoring organizations through the apprenticeship process, but others do not.11 A third of employers say that lack of clarity around registration requirements is a barrier to starting their own program.12 

High costs, especially for small businesses: Even though apprenticeships offer a big return on investment for employers, there are steep costs to starting and maintaining a program. Paying apprentice wages, providing training equipment, and covering tuition costs are significant hurdles for businesses, especially smaller businesses. An analysis by the Obama Administration found that programs spent anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 per apprentice, which doesn’t include startup costs.13 It’s no wonder that over two-thirds of employers cite cost as a barrier to starting an apprenticeship program.14 The funds needed to recruit apprentices, find space for classroom instruction, hire qualified and experienced instructors, and ensure apprentices have the resources they need are all hurdles for employers wanting to hire apprentices.15

For smaller businesses, navigating the registration process and meeting requirements can also be costly. Requirements on the ratio of experienced workers to apprentices may force smaller businesses to scale up their existing workforce or forego registered apprenticeship programs altogether. This is especially true in the construction industry, where 82% of all construction firms have less than 10 employees.16 Providing safe environments for experienced workers and apprentices is essential, but policymakers should also work to ease the burdensome costs such requirements pose to smaller employers.

2. Not Reaching Enough People

Not diverse enough: Nearly half of working-age Americans without a four-year degree are persons of color.17 But Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders together account for just 2% of total apprentices, less than a third of their representation of the US population.18 And while Black and Hispanic individuals make up 17% and 27% of registered apprentices respectively, they face larger hurdles to completing programs and attaining high-paying jobs.19 While apprentices may not complete programs for a variety of reasons, from finding a different higher-wage job to struggling to meet the demands of work and family, lower rates of completion for minority groups is a concerning trend. Just one out of every four Black apprentices that starts an apprenticeship program finishes, and those who do finish can expect to see lower starting hourly wages than any other group.20 Further, the Hispanic share of apprenticeships in STEM fields is just half their share of non-STEM roles, meaning they are more likely to miss out on the higher wages associated with these fields.21

There is also a gender disparity, as just 14% of active apprentices are women.22 Most female apprentices complete apprenticeships in health, hospitality, education, and care economy sectors, which traditionally offer lower wages than fields like construction or STEM.23 Women also see lower completion rates, with barriers such as access to child care keeping many from finishing programs they start.

Dominated by the trades: New registered apprenticeships are approved in a variety of industries every year, but the American apprenticeship system and its reputation remains dominated by the trades. For example, over a third of all registered apprentices are in construction—over 10 times as many that are in all health care and social assistance fields.24

Fewer opportunities in rural America: For rural workers, apprenticeship opportunities are incredibly difficult to access. Currently, 41 million rural adults live over 25 miles from the nearest institution of higher learning, and some lack the reliable access to internet for remote training options.25 This means that rural apprentices have long commutes for training or need to relocate closer to their programs.26 Rural employers also typically have less administrative and financial capacity to start and maintain apprenticeship programs than their urban counterparts.27 This is made worse by the small sliver of funding for workforce development for rural communities. In 2020, DoL awarded community-level grants targeting youth apprenticeships, and not a single one went to a rural area.28

3. Administrative and Funding Challenges

Good data is hard to come by: There is no comprehensive database for registered apprenticeships. While the US Department of Labor does have a data system that houses information on apprenticeships, such as demographics and industries, there are significant gaps in what the public has access to. There is no data on employment outcomes by occupation or demographic group, and wage information is not industry specific. Further, the available data is missing key information from certain SAA states, as they may not submit the information to the government run data system.29 This lack of public data keeps workers from making informed decisions about their career paths and policymakers from better understanding the barriers workers face in starting and completing programs.

Employers are also largely responsible for supplying data regarding their programs with little federal support. Under the current system, many have to report across multiple data systems and differing formats. Additionally, the system is not designed to be used by workforce intermediaries who often manage multiple employers, meaning they resort to creating their own databases.30

Not enough “stackability” in credentials: Registered apprenticeships provide a nationally recognized credential at the completion of a program.31 This helps employers identify which workers have the skills they need, while also ensuring more workers are able to access good-paying jobs. However, because apprenticeships are often years-long programs, many end up leaving early and missing out on this credential. The skills they have acquired to date should be recognized to ensure their training isn’t a wasted effort. This is often called “stackable” credentials, where skills and training build on each other sequentially. For example, a worker who completes one-fourth of their program before leaving typically has to start over instead of resuming from where they left off.

Additionally, many apprentices come into their programs with skills and training from military service. Former service members can advance their apprenticeship progress by demonstrating relevant skills, but having this formally recognized by credentials would create a more streamlined system.

Some programs, especially those with longer training times, offer interim credentials to apprentices to recognize their skills as they learn them. But this process is left up to employers or intermediaries to implement, which means that these credentials look slightly different from program to program.32 The federal government is primed to help support and grow efforts to standardize a stackable and portable credential system in registered apprenticeships.

Underfunded: The amount of money allocated for job-training each year through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the main bill funding job training in the United States, is just a fifth of what is spent on higher education.33 And registered apprenticeships make up a mere 1% of training providers eligible for funding through WIOA.34

Accessing this funding also remains difficult, as apprenticeship sponsors often must compete for funding with other shorter-term, and less expensive, training programs. Further, many apprentices are incumbent workers, and workforce boards tend to prioritize federal funding for unemployed or dislocated workers.35 The Biden Administration’s historic investments in clean energy, infrastructure, and manufacturing are already fueling a growth in good jobs that don’t require a college degree. Yet, employers continue to struggle with unlocking the funds already in the system, whether that be through WIOA, other grants, or federal contracts. Making it easier to access existing streams of funding is also critical to creating a robust registered apprenticeship system.36 

Underutilized: Especially compared to other countries, apprenticeships make up a small share of our workforce. Even if just one percent of working-age adults were in apprenticeship programs, we would triple the number of apprentices in this country.37

The underutilization of apprenticeships in the United States is driven in large part by the hurdles discussed above. But public perception surrounding apprenticeships also keeps the system from reaching its full potential.38 Apprenticeships are a key pathway to high-quality jobs, yet four-year degrees are all too often seen as the only way to achieve a good living wage. Employers and workers need a deeper understanding of the value and role apprenticeships play in our economy.

How Can Policymakers Improve Registered Apprenticeships?

There are many ways to tackle the problems outlined above. Below, we lay out two dozen policy solutions aimed at accomplishing three major goals: making the system easier to use, creating more connections, and providing more resources.

Make the System Easier to Use

Big Idea #1: Create a Virtual Apprenticeship Institute to expand virtual instruction and job training offerings for apprenticeship programs.

The pandemic’s disruption of in-person learning, alongside an increase in jobs primed for remote work, has led to efforts to shift the earn and learn model of registered apprenticeships to virtual formats.39 Incorporating more virtual learning and training into apprenticeship programs creates more flexibility for workers and employers, cultivates more inclusive working environments, and helps smaller employers host apprenticeship programs.40

Federal policymakers should establish a Virtual Apprenticeship Institute dedicated to helping employers integrate more online training and educational offerings in their programs. The institute can integrate virtual options into existing registered apprenticeship programs, create resources for expanding apprenticeships into more digital fields, and provide technical assistance support in transitioning to more virtual options where feasible. This institute should also ensure resources maintain the quality and safety of programs.

Big Idea #2: Create a frequent flyer program for participating employers that have a track record of approved high-quality programs.

Every time an employer wants to create a new apprenticeship program, they must go through the time-consuming registration process, which is made even longer if they are navigating multiple state systems. To help ease this administrative burden, the Department of Labor should create a streamlined, fast-track registration process for employers with a strong history of implementing quality programs. This could include simpler registration forms outlining how their new program will hit key metrics and requirements instead of longer and lengthier paperwork.41 For example, if an employer already has a high-quality registered optometrist apprenticeship, they should be fast-tracked if they are applying for a pharmacy technician apprenticeship. In addition, because these employers have a strong track record, their programs could receive provisional status quicker and easier, while still closely tracking outcomes to ensure their programs are maintaining a high-quality status.   

Other ideas:

  • Further build out comprehensive overviews of the skills and competencies needed for different jobs, vetted by partners across the apprenticeship space, to help guide the process of creating programs that meet employers’ needs and ensure the quality of apprenticeship programs.42
  • Increase grant funding for intermediaries—specifically to market and organize apprenticeship programs for employers, as well as expand the number of staff supporting the launch of new programs.43
  • Require DoL to gather and publish data on wage outcomes for apprentices across different occupations and demographic groups as part of their Registered Apprenticeship Partners Information Database System (RAPIDS).
  • Develop or designate a technology platform for housing and submitting registered apprenticeship data. This will streamline the reporting requirement process for employers and intermediaries.44
  • Create a centralized online resource center that houses sample curriculum, templates for administrative agreements, marketing materials, etc. Existing resources should be better organized and more accessible to employers and workers.
  • Establish a grant or incentive program to have intermediaries hire consultants to help with paperwork associated with registering apprenticeships. This can also be targeted towards small and medium-sized businesses, or those in high-demand industries.
  • Require DoL to establish better timelines for state agencies approving and reviewing apprenticeship program applications.45
  • Require DoL to set standards for reciprocity across state agencies, as well as states under DoL’s apprenticeship office, to prevent more hurdles to creating programs, especially for large employers with a history of providing quality programs.
  • Require DoL to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment of the apprenticeship registration process, as well as reporting requirements, to see where processes can be streamlined or where the agency can handle requirements instead of employers.

Create More Connections

Big idea #1: Expand the use of registered apprenticeships in federal agencies.

Currently, there are over 64 registered apprenticeship programs across the federal government that train over 100,000 apprentices.46 A majority of those apprentices are a part of the United States Military Apprenticeship Program (USMAP), with others scattered through other agencies in fields such as the trades, firefighting, manufacturing, and transportation.47 Yet, there is untapped potential to expand the types of apprenticeships offered at federal agencies to more types of jobs and reduce barriers to entry for those without a four-year degree.

Other countries have seen success in developing robust federal apprenticeship programs. The United Kingdom has set a 5% apprenticeship goal for their civil service and currently have apprenticeship programs in a variety of industries including human resources, public relations, public policy, and digital technology.

Increasing apprenticeship programs at federal agencies will increase the diversity of the federal workforce while also reducing barriers to entry for those without a four-year degree. Recruiting should also focus on ensuring pathways for underrepresented populations into these roles.

Big idea #2: Enhance the Biden-Harris Administration’s workforce hub program by establishing Apprenticeship Accelerator programs in each of the chosen cities.

In May 2023, as part of their Investing in American agenda, the Biden-Harris Administration designated five cities across the United States to be a part of their first tranche of “workforce hubs.” These cities’ local and state officials, employers, unions, and educational institutions will work with the Administration to cultivate a skilled workforce that meets the demand created by public and private sector investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and clean energy.48 To bolster these efforts, the Administration should establish apprenticeship accelerator programs in each of these cities aimed at convening employers, unions, workforce development boards, and other community organizations to launch new registered apprenticeships. The accelerator programs would build up apprenticeship offerings across in-demand industries by scaling up and expediting apprenticeship programs, helping employers start new programs, streamlining existing processes, and getting more workers into apprenticeships in the first place.49

For example, Baltimore is the site of several key infrastructure projects and has a growing offshore wind industry.50 An accelerator program should target apprenticeships to meet the jobs created by these private and public-sector investments. And while apprenticeships are a small but essential component of many of the workforce development efforts in these cities, a designated program in each hub focused on helping these regions meet the labor-force demand of growing industries will help connect workers with the good jobs from these investments.

Other ideas:

  • Create apprenticeship hubs in all 50 states, which can be catalyzed by the passage of the National Apprenticeship Act of 2023. These hubs will support employers and workers navigating the registered apprenticeship program.
  • Create a grant program targeted toward helping Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) expand or start registered apprenticeship programs on campuses across a range of fields such as teaching, health care, cybersecurity, and more.51
  • Require DoL to conduct a thorough study on completion rates of apprentices and their reasons for leaving programs. This study should include breakdowns of race, gender, and ethnicity.
  • Require DoL to conduct a study on apprenticeship approvals and denials, which includes information on the length of time it takes to review requests and approve or deny programs.
  • Call on the Administration to partner with other agencies, such as the Department of Commerce and Department on Energy, on more sector-wide apprenticeship challenges similar to the 90-day trucking challenge and 120-day cybersecurity apprenticeship sprint.
  • Create a competitive grant program aimed at supporting colleges in a state’s university network to establish an apprenticeship center or hub with the goal of integrating higher education and apprenticeship pathways, especially in fields such as K-12 education and health care.52
  • Create a grant program to support registered apprenticeship efforts in rural communities across the country to help support new investments in many of these regions.53

Provide More Resources

Big idea: Create an apprenticeship wage subsidy program for industries experiencing severe shortages in skilled workers.

The huge investments made in the American economy through the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPs and Science Act, and the bipartisan infrastructure law are poised to lift up America’s non-college workforce. But there is a need for job-training programs to help meet the growing demand for labor. The federal government should create a program that helps subsidize some of the cost of apprentices’ wages in in-demand industries facing skill shortages.54 In doing so, the federal government will help offset some of the costs of taking on an apprentice.55 The program could involve a base credit for wages, or a percent of wages covered over a certain time period, whether that be only for the first year of a program or longer-term. Also, the list of eligible industries may be decided by DoL with input from industry leaders and employers.

Other ideas:

  • Increase funding for state agencies to expand apprenticeships in in-demand industries by supporting employers to increase offerings and helping workers access them.
  • Invest in pre-apprenticeship opportunities, which can help expand pathways for underrepresented groups into apprenticeship programs.
  • Provide small- and medium-sized businesses with loans or grants up to $10,000 for each new apprentice they hire.
  • Increase funding for Women in Apprenticeship & Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grants, which supports organizations across the country helping women into apprenticeship programs and more male-dominated jobs.56


Apprenticeships create pathways to good jobs, help businesses thrive, and drive economic growth. But without efforts to reform and expand the registered system as it currently stands, the enormous economic potential of apprenticeships will remain untapped. By making our registered apprenticeship system work better for employers, workers, and educational providers, policymakers can break down barriers to good-paying jobs for the millions of Americans without a college degree while spurring economic opportunity for businesses and communities across the country.


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    The numbers in this calculation are based on those ages 15 to 64, as apprenticeship numbers are based on those aged 16 and over.

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  49. “US Labor Department Announces $10.4M in Grants to Expand, Expedite Apprenticeships in 51 States and Territories, and District of Columbia.” Press Release, U.S. Department of Labor, 2 Jun. 2016, Accessed 28 Sep. 2023.  

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