Last month's enactment of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), so long in the making, is a milestone. It makes important updates to our workforce training system and demonstrates national support for the expanded use of sector strategies that forge training partnerships between employers, nonprofits, foundations and public agencies.

But WIOA is still just a first step in addressing the problem of connecting people to jobs. We need to build on it to establish a true and equitable apprenticeship system in the United States. An apprenticeship system spanning business sectors would create more direct, intentional paths between job seekers and well-paying jobs.

Apprenticeships combine hands-on training at a particular company with complementary classroom instruction. Participants get the benefit of practical experience under the guidance of skilled mentors while earning an income. Their business sponsors end up with employees trained to do exactly what they need, in exactly the way they expect. While apprenticeships are often associated with unions, a number of company-sponsored programs have long and successful track records.

Beyond the United States, apprenticeships are more common in such countries as the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany. These programs give young people paths to employment besides college and offer them and other job seekers with more than the typical internship or exposure to a career by providing opportunities for in-depth learning in a particular industry.

Here in Maryland, apprenticeships are an important — but underutilized — tool. In 2013, more than 8,800 people were engaged in apprenticeships in the state, but only 212 people completed them, suggesting that more support is needed to help workers make it through. And the state's apprenticeship programs are overwhelmingly focused on construction trades, led by electricians, plumbers and steamfitters. Apprenticeships could be created to meet the hiring needs of a much wider range of occupations, such as information technology, logistics and health care.

Despite the success of many apprenticeship programs, U.S. employers often shy away, viewing them as another expense or only applicable to careers in construction and manufacturing. But research shows apprenticeships are a boon to business, workers and the public. A Mathematica Policy Research study found the average annual salary of an apprentice who completed a program registered under the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Apprenticeship is nearly $50,000 — more than twice the federal poverty level for a family of four. And the training programs saw a $35 return for every dollar of public funding invested, in the form of additional tax receipts and reduced use of unemployment insurance and public assistance.

These figures don't factor in the indirect benefits to the children and families of American workers, including a steady paycheck and all that can provide — from food on the table and stable, safe housing to savings to create even better opportunities for the next generation.

To create a strong and equitable U.S. apprenticeship system, we should build on the successes of sector strategies, as exemplified by partnerships supported by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which has provided funding for job-training programs here through the Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative.

We need policies that create an easy-to-use system for employers and highlight how such programs can benefit business. Several major companies, including Alcoa, Ford and UPS, have committed to increasing their use of apprenticeships, affirming their value.

But we need more business champions willing to engage with government and nonprofits to develop the workforce they require. We need to do a better job of creating a clear pathway to apprenticeship opportunities, making it easier for people to navigate the requisite application process, and of supporting apprentices so they can see programs through to the end.

We need more consistent, reliable public and private investment in such programs, which must be accessible to those struggling most: low-income individuals and families, and people of color. Maryland has taken some important steps, such as establishing the EARN Maryland fund to support effective programs that prepare people for jobs or to advance in the workplace.

Finally, we need philanthropies to support expansion efforts, drawing on their longtime support of high-quality workforce development to ensure the use of best practices in this area.

The American economy is only as strong as its workforce, and we must invest in the future of both. Last month's victory is a great start; let's seize this moment to go even further to cement our competitive edge as a nation and our legacy as the land of opportunity for anyone willing and able to work.

Robert P. Giloth is a vice president at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, where he oversees efforts to increase economic opportunities for children and families; his email is bgiloth@aecf.org. Maureen Conway is a vice president at the Aspen Institute, where she is executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program; her email is maureen.conway@aspeninst.org. They are coeditors of Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies, released in June.


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