Want a White-Collar Career Without College Debt? Become an Apprentice

Portrait of a bald Black woman confidently standing in a legal library.
This article was originally published in The New York Times on December 10th, 2019.

In health care, financial services, software development — even law — apprenticeships are offering an alternative to paying college tuition.

The offer of a new life arrived in the mail for the son of a laid-off steelworker: a scholarship to St. Louis University, where he dreamed of studying computer science.

But Tyler Holdener’s excitement quickly curdled into anxiety after he realized he would have to borrow nearly $14,000 a year, even with the school’s aid package.

He decided not to go to college. Instead, he is becoming a software application engineer through LaunchCode, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that taught him to code and placed him in an apprenticeship at Centene, a health care company.

“I’ve started my career and I don’t have any debt at all,” said Mr. Holdener, 20, who earns $20 an hour during the apprenticeship, an amount that will increase if he is hired full-time.

As the cost of a college education continues to soar, a new breed of apprenticeship is cropping up across the country, promising an affordable path to careers that once needed a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In California, one of a handful of states where people can take the bar exam without going to law school, a new program helps low-income black and Latina women become lawyers by apprenticing for four years under an experienced attorney. In Kentucky, young people are offered the chance to shadow experienced social workers and join the state’s Civil Service. In Chicago, community college students are training to become human resource managers and insurance brokers.

“Apprenticeships are proving to be an excellent alternative to the traditional four-year college degree,” said Aaron Olson of Aon, a professional services company that helped start the Chicago Apprenticeship Network, which hopes to place 1,000 apprentices next year.

Supporters of apprenticeships say expanding them would help young people more than proposals to cancel student debt or make college free put forth by Democratic presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“When you push through an academic-only approach, that’s going to disadvantage people who learn better by doing,” said Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has researched apprenticeships around the world.

But many parents and educators remain skeptical of diverting low-income students away from a classic liberal arts education.

“The danger is that we’ll create a two-tier system, where you have people who can afford to go to the elite colleges, who get the networks to move into a great career, while you have lower-level pathways for everyone else,” said Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, who supports expanding apprenticeships but acknowledges that the effort faces many challenges. “The question that I am starting to hear is ‘O.K., you are from the elite. Would you send your kid to that?’”

Nonetheless, some apprenticeship programs are highly competitive, receiving a hundred applications for every available slot.

“They can be more selective than Stanford or Harvard,” said Ryan Craig, author of “College Disrupted” and the managing director of University Ventures, a fund that invests in innovations to higher education.

The apprenticeship model, which typically combines classroom learning in a boot camp or community college with paid on-the-job experience, is popular in Europe. About half of all young people in Germany participate in one. Britain recently ramped up its apprenticeships. But the model has yet to be brought to scale in the United States.

Experts estimate that roughly a million people are participating in some type of apprenticeship program in the United States this year, compared with about 20 million who are enrolled in colleges and universities.

The Labor Department counts 633,625 active apprentices in 2019, up from 375,000 in 2013, but not all programs go through the time-consuming process of registering. Registration, which is voluntary, allows companies to seek federal help in developing curriculum, as well as tax credits in some states. Registration also allows veterans to use a portion of their G.I. Bill benefits to support participation in an apprenticeship.

Although most apprenticeships are still in skilled trades, such as plumbing and electrical work, in the past two years more than 700 programs have been created in white-collar or “new collar” fields such as cybersecurity, financial services, information technology and health care, according to Labor Department data.

The desire to expand apprenticeships reflects a rare area of bipartisan agreement. President Barack Obama pushed to increase their availability. President Trump, who gained fame with a reality television show called “The Apprentice,” has made expanding apprenticeships a signature policy. In June, the Trump administration proposed an alternative to the Labor Department’s program, which has been in place since 1937. The new system was supposed to cut through bureaucratic red tape by allowing industries to regulate their own apprenticeships. But that effort has stalled amid concerns that it would weaken worker protections and add more confusion to an already fragmented landscape.

“We would like to focus bipartisan efforts on modernizing the existing system,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education & Skills at New America. “Where it works, it works well.”

Despite the famous “You’re fired” catchphrase of Mr. Trump’s TV show, the beauty of the model is “that pretty much everybody who joins the program is hired,” Ms. McCarthy said.

The guarantee of a job was a key selling point for Dasom Diana Choi, 24, who joined the apprenticeship program at Techtonic, a software development group based in Boulder, Colo., that trains coders to work with its products and its clients. Ms. Choi dropped out of the University of San Diego after one semester because she worried about accruing debt.

“I was a little stressed out that even if I were to complete college, I wouldn’t have a job waiting for me,” she said. After years of working at a Chipotle, she studied coding on her own and considered going back to school for it. Instead she applied for the apprenticeship at Techtonic.

“It almost sounded too good to be true, getting paid to study,” she said.

She did not get into the program the first time but was accepted in the following cohort. After three months of classes by Techtonic, she is now apprenticing at one of its clients, building software for the music industry.

Heather Terenzio, founder and chief executive of Techtonic, said she had started the apprenticeship program as a cost-effective way to find local talent. She initially hired developers in Armenia but found communication challenging. Ms. Terenzio, a civil engineer who learned to code after college, realized that none of the senior managers had computer science degrees.

“We had this theory of, ‘I wonder if we could find passionate local people and teach them what we were doing,’” she said. Hundreds of people have graduated from the program since it registered with the Labor Department in 2016, she said. About 85 percent have been hired by Techtonic or its clients.

Some employers establish apprenticeship programs as a way to boost diversity. Others do it to create a pipeline of future employees for hard-to-fill positions who will remain loyal to the company that trained them. The Hartford, an insurance company, began working with community colleges in 2015 to offer students the chance to spend their summers handling customer’s calls. So far, about 80 have been hired full-time.

“Insurance isn’t something that people aspire to do,” said John Kinney, chief claims officer, who oversees about 7,000 employees. “You take a student who was in a two-year program in a community college who may be the first person in their family to work in a corporate environment, and seeing them succeed has been really gratifying to watch.”

Even in the field of law, apprenticeship programs are cropping up. In California, people can become lawyers by apprenticing for four years under an experienced attorney or judge and fulfilling other requirements, including passing the California bar. The number of people seeking to take this path jumped from 69 applicants in 2017 to 147 this year, according to the State Bar of California. Some of the interest is due to the media personality Kim Kardashian, who is trying to become a lawyer this way. But there is a larger movement afoot to make legal careers more affordable, said Rachel Johnson-Farias, the founding director of Esq. Apprentice, a new program that provides mentoring and cost-of-living assistance to legal apprentices.

Ms. Johnson-Farias, who earned a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, said she aims to increase the number of lawyers serving low-income communities by helping black and Latina women pass the bar without taking on crushing debt. One of the program’s participants, Lauren Richardson, a 33-year-old freelance media producer, said her dreams of law school were derailed when lack of funds forced her to drop out of community college.

“You kind of have to choose, ‘Am I going to pay the bills or am I going to go back to school?’” said Ms. Richardson, who will be starting tort law classes next month through Esq. Apprentice. “It’s really like a story of redemption for me.”

One of the biggest obstacles to scaling up apprenticeships in the United States is employers’ reluctance to invest in the upfront costs of training workers who could take their skills elsewhere before those costs are recouped, an issue that has bedeviled work force development for generations. That has led some to conclude that a significant public investment is needed.

Nonetheless, some big employers are getting on board. Amazon began a program in 2017 that has helped about 500 veterans and military spouses train as software development engineers and technical support engineers. CVS Health, which employs 295,000 people nationwide, has had about 8,000 apprentices train to become pharmacy technicians, logistics technicians and store managers since 2015.

“We’re turning the ship in a different direction, and I think the employers will find it compelling,” said Mr. Lerman, of Urban Institute. “But they have a lot of inertia themselves. It’s a long-term strategy.”