The journey toward a career often starts at a fork in the road. One path points toward on-the-job training. The other takes a detour through college. They have different benefits and barriers, but both can seem like one-way streets—no U-turns allowed.
Now, a pilot partnership among colleges, companies and the American Council on Education aims to help people pursue both paths. The Apprenticeship Pathways project takes apprenticeships—experiences that companies design that pay people wages to learn while they work—and translates them into free college credits.
For example, someone who completes a one-year apprenticeship with IBM in software engineering not only sets the foundation for a career at the company, but also will be able to earn up to 45 college credits for that experience, giving her about a three-semester head start on earning an associate or bachelor’s degree.
“This really is a bridge that helps a candidate—a learner, an apprentice—achieve both outcomes,” says Kelli Jordan, director of IBM career, skills and performance. “It keeps people’s options open and helps them continue to build skills whenever they want to over the course of their lifetime.”
Apprenticeships have long been a mainstay for hiring people into skilled trades, but they’ve lately gained some momentum as a way to train people for office work, too, including for information technology positions that are in high demand. Because employers pay for the training and offer wages, these opportunities are more affordable for job seekers than programs that charge tuition.
Yet as the skills and credentials required for good employment opportunities change over time, some workers without a college degree find that they would benefit from having one. Others aspire to earn a diploma for personal reasons.
“Slowly but surely, individual workers are starting to realize, if their chosen pathway or life circumstances leads them to have to work on the front end, they have to combine that with getting their learning documented,” says Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education. “Figuring out how to make that manageable for more workers is part of our collective challenge.”
It’s one that the federal government has started to tackle. Many apprenticeships are registered with the Department of Labor, which helps these training programs collaborate with higher education to award credits through the Registered Apprenticeship-College Consortium. Congress is considering a bill called the Apprenticeships to College Act that would strengthen the network.
In fall 2020, the American Council on Education started its own effort with $1 million from the Koch Foundation. The council drew on its decades-long experience recruiting college faculty to translate military training into college-equivalency credit to design a similar review process for apprenticeships. The council will keep track of the credits that apprentices earn through Credly, a digital badge platform.
For colleges, the benefits of participating in the pilot include an increased ability to attract and enroll students, Soares says. Six institutions have signed up to accept the apprenticeship credits so far: Bismark State College; Excelsior College; Ivy Tech Community College; Rowan University; Tidewater Community College; and California State University at San Bernardino.
Additionally, the review process may benefit higher education as a whole, Soares adds, because it’s helping not only to translate job training into college credits, but also to translate college coursework into work competencies—the kind of information that colleges can use to make the case for the value of their degrees.
“Colleges are redefining their role in a fluid marketplace of learning,” Soares says.
Companies and organizations participating so far in the pilot include T-Mobile, The Hartford Group and several trade unions. Their apprenticeships train people for jobs including software engineer, insurance analyst, customer service representative and electrical power lineman.
For companies like IBM, leaders say one benefit of apprenticeships has been attracting workers from a range of ages and a variety of education and career backgrounds. Among the nearly 1,000 apprentices that the company will have graduated by the end of 2021 have been people ages 18 to 60, Jordan says. Among their ranks: former teachers, firefighters and nail technicians.
“You’re really bringing in a much more diverse pipeline of candidates because you aren’t presuming there is one particular profile that fits your need,” Jordan says. “If you are not building technology with a diverse team, your product is not going to fit the needs of a diverse world.”
Adding college credit to IBM apprenticeships may help make the experience even more attractive to more candidates, Jordan says.
“We recognize a lot of people find value in that degree. We do as well,” she says. “This opens up the landscape to our apprentices to pursue a degree they may have felt was unattainable in the past.”