November 15

Leveraging Industry Experts to Transform Education


Career Education Master Plan is an opportunity to address inefficiencies that continue to reinforce gaps in our workforce.

College debt, the elimination of affirmative action, and declining enrollment threaten to leave more ambitious Californians on the sidelines when these degrees are a base requirement for good paying careers. In fact only 1 in 5 California high school students today are projected to go on to earn a Bachelor’s or advanced degree.

There has to be a better way to strengthen the pathways for broader reach into high wage, high growth jobs for our diverse communities and populations. Career Technical Education programs combined with Registered Apprenticeship programs offer a proven solution that address the concerns that many families are facing.

Fortunately the state is embarking on a major reimagination of a Master Plan for Career Education to update its approaches on critical pathways and address fundamental, long-standing barriers that are not serving employers or job candidates. The executive order spells out numerous bold investments, many already underway, with a mandate to streamline these to address three core goals: career pathways, hands-on learning and real-life skills, and universal access and affordability.

While this covers a broad range of career areas, and prioritizes equity and access, we should treat this planning cycle as an opportunity to permanently reform California’s educational pathways to transformational careers for people who have been systematically sidelined. The structure of these pathways should meet people where they are, recognizing that many populations need to gain relevant skills and experience while avoiding or minimizing student debt.

With technology becoming integral to just about every industry, it’s important to look at the tech workforce as going beyond big tech and Silicon Valley startups (consider the impacts of AI on all aspects of our economy). Tech is a fast growing and economically critical category, and there is a severe shortage of skilled technologists and software engineers, in spite of recent layoffs. Technology enables major growth opportunities for industries that are core to every region of the state. This gives people in any California community the prospect of lucrative, impactful careers in whatever sector interests them, if the doors are open to them.

Apprenticeships and skills-based hiring (vs. requiring degrees) are emerging approaches to address this. In practice, apprenticeships are effectively the equivalent of an Associate Degree and in some cases a Bachelor’s Degree. Apprenticeships entail deliberate emphasis on immediately adding value on the job, while allowing the apprentices practical application of what they are learning through related instruction.  Apprenticeships are a proven model in Europe, especially in countries like Switzerland, where ~⅔ of students opt for apprenticeships. In the United States, employers haven’t been incentivized to explore implementing apprenticeships at scale outside of traditional trades.

Ryan Craig, author of the new book Apprentice Nation: How the Earn and Learn Alternative to Higher Education Will Create a Stronger and Fairer America, notes two major reasons the U.S. only has 1/15 as many apprentices per capita as Switzerland and Germany, and – surprisingly – only 1/8 as many as the U.K. and Australia. He writes:

First, more than any other country, America has bought into the college-for-all approach, resulting in an imbalanced approach to investing: for every dollar of public funding invested in apprenticeship, colleges and universities receive over $1,000, and for every dollar of public support received by an apprentice, a college student receives $50. Second, the limited funding we’re allocating comes out of workforce development buckets. But apprenticeships aren’t like other workforce training programs. They’re not vocational training that we hope will lead to a job. Apprenticeships ARE jobs, first and foremost. So they merit a very different approach to investment and funding.

Photo of High School teacher with digital tablet helping teenage girl In STEM technology lesson

The shift is that employers can create fresh, adaptable talent with in-demand skills instead of fighting over a limited supply. By growing the talent pool, industry reduces the need to poach talent and may even create equilibrium within labor market costs. There is substantial evidence of high return on investment and solid earnings for apprentices with government-assisted programs, while improving company diversity and employee loyalty. 

By applying proven earn-and-learn models like apprenticeships to bootstrap technology and tech-enabled careers, we can overcome the well-publicized gaps in the workforce while offering economic transformation for populations across California for whom this hasn’t been a realistic option. Further, apprenticeship programs ensure higher levels of persistence in education programs, which leads to higher completion rates; in California, the gold standard of Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) design includes the integration of college courses. 

RAP intermediaries that liaise between employers and education providers should have a voice at the table. They have a track record of enabling these pathways and their agile training and business models are driven by outcomes of successful job placement based on candidates having the needed skills, which are changing faster than traditional institutions can adapt. By directly involving RAP intermediaries in developing the Master Plan, the State has an opportunity to triple down on a data driven mechanism that advances our economy. 

Mike Roberts is CEO of Creating Coding Careers, a nonprofit RAP intermediary in California committed to diversifying the tech community. Orrian Willis has been a leader in Workforce Development and Apprenticeship programs for 13 years.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of any entities they represent.

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