Education / Labor Force / Politics

A Closer Look at the Rising Popularity of Apprenticeships and the Decrease in College Enrollment


Over the past decade, college enrollment has been on the decline while participation in apprenticeship programs has grown. The U.S. Department of Labor defines an apprenticeship as “an industry-driven, high-quality career pathway where employers can develop and prepare their future workforce, and individuals can obtain paid work experience, classroom instruction, and a nationally-recognized, portable credential.” Many see apprenticeships as a “fast track” to gain a relatively high-paying job while obtaining career-specific training, all without the requirement of a college degree. While there are many personal considerations that impact a person’s choice to pursue an apprenticeship over a college education, the stark differences in terms of employment outlook, starting salary, and both upfront and continual costs of college versus apprenticeships likely make the latter seem attractive to a growing number of young adults in America. 

Apprenticeships: Input and Output

During 2020, over 636,000 apprentices completed apprenticeship programs across the United States, and roughly 221,000 new apprentices began their apprenticeships (Department of Labor). These high levels of apprenticeship participation endured throughout the pandemic, only dipping slightly from pre-pandemic numbers in 2019, when 252,000 new apprentices began programs. Looking at the past decade, it is clear that apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular because participation has grown dramatically. The Department of Labor has reported a 128 percent growth in new apprentices between 2009 and 2019. Likewise, over 12,000 new apprenticeship programs were put in place between 2014 and 2019. This rise in apprenticeship participation is even more striking when considering that the population of Americans at the age when one typically chooses between pursuing college or an alternative path is on the decline. The staggering growth of apprenticeship participation, therefore, reflects that a higher percentage of an already smaller pool of possible participants (teenagers and young adults) are finding these programs increasingly attractive. 

Industries that typically require apprenticeships for entry include carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, boilermakers, masonry workers, and many other manual industries according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, apprenticeships are also offered in non-manual industries such as healthcare, information technology, and financial security, though these programs are not as common. Apprenticeships vary in terms of length, with many taking between 4 and 6 years to complete, depending on the industry. During the apprenticeship, the apprentice will gain technical training and on-the-job experience and, in some cases, classroom instruction. The apprentice will work for a sponsor – which may be an individual employer or a corporation – who pays the apprentice’s wages. Many apprentices choose to register their apprenticeships with the Department of Labor in order to show that their program meets national standards for certification in that particular industry. This can help apprentices secure a job in the industry after the apprenticeship program has been completed. A recent report from the DOL in September 2020 reported that 94 percent of apprentices who completed their program retained employment and that their average annual salary was $70,000. For the most part, the long-term outlook for apprentices in the job market is positive, as many industries that require apprenticeships have upwards employment growth projections – particularly for plumbers, pipefitters, electricians, and construction workers. 

College: Input and Output

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 19.6 million students were enrolled in college in the United States, either full-time or part-time at a private or public institution, in 2019. This number is down from the peak enrollment in 2011 of just over 21 million – a number which has fallen incrementally in the decade since. Though the decline in college enrollment is due to far more factors than simply the rise of apprenticeships, it is worth noting how much growth occurred in apprenticeship programs between 2009-2019 (128 percent) compared to declining college enrollments. 

For those that do choose to attend college, the average starting salary for a class of 2020 graduate with a bachelor’s degree was $55,260. While this average salary grew 2.5 percent from the $53,88 average salary for the class of 2019, it is roughly $15,000 short of average annual salary that apprentices earn after completing their program. It is, however, important to note that $55k is not the salary that college degree holders will likely be earning over their lifetimes. It is only a starting salary expected to increase throughout the graduate’s lifetime. The financial implications of apprenticeships versus college are also illustrated in the fact that while an apprenticeship is paid, a college education is a massive financial investment due to rising costs of tuition. Not earning a wage while attending college is one thing but dealing with student loan debt after graduation makes the cost of attending college versus apprenticeships all the more striking. While student debt, like tuition costs, differs between those who attended a private or public institution, American students from the class 2020 borrowed an average of $29,927 in student loans – a 20 percent increase in the average amount borrowed by students a decade ago in 2010 (U.S. News). 

After graduation, the career outlook for college graduates is highly dependent on what degree has been earned and whether or not graduate degrees are pursued. For instance, in 2018 the average unemployment rate for all college graduates with a bachelor’s degree, aged 25-29 years old, was 2.9 percent, but certain fields of study had much more striking rates: those with degrees in computer and information sciences had a 5.6 percent unemployment rate, while general education degree holders had only a 1.4 percent unemployment rate. Despite these fluctuations, the unemployment rate for college graduations in general is pretty low; the career outlook and earnings for college graduates is also positive. 


Comparing the relative costs, investment, employment, and career outlook of apprenticeship programs versus college illustrates that there are gives and takes for both paths. Those who choose to complete apprenticeships will likely enjoy the immediate benefits of getting paid to gain hands-on work experience, not having to worry about student debt, having a good chance of securing employment with their sponsor company, and gaining the credentials to work in industries that are projected to have positive growth in future years. A college education, on the other hand, is a massive upfront financial investment – one that takes the average person 20 years to completely pay off – and may or may not immediately result in employment and a high starting salary. Yet many would argue that a college education carries intangible benefits, such as prestige, intellectual enrichment, opportunities to make friendships and to network, and is an important period for personal growth. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if apprenticeship programs continue to increase in popularity and how or if college enrollment numbers are impacted.