Are Apprenticeships the Solution to a Broken College System?

By Sophie Ruddock

It’s no secret that the college system is broken, the surprise is how unfairly the burden is shared. Students are left with crippling debt but household income is still more likely to predict your future career earnings than your college GPA. 

The system ultimately perpetuates racial inequality in the American workplace. Degree requirements screen out 67% of black Americans and 79% of Hispanic Americans from job opportunities. The problem goes from entry-level to the executive suite. There are only four black chief executives in the Fortune 500. 

It’s a huge missed opportunity because we know that racial equity is not only good for society, but good for business. One study estimates that racial inequality has cost the economy $16 trillion over the last two decades in missed innovation opportunities and wage gaps. We know the most diverse companies are now more likely to outperform financially.

At the same time, traditional knowledge-focused degrees create an enormous disconnect between the skills employers need and the skills that graduates are taught. Only 13% of Americans strongly agree that college graduates in this country are well-prepared for success in the workplace. Almost 70% of U.S. employers reported a talent shortage at the end of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated the pace of digital transformation, creating thousands of new jobs that would not have existed ten years ago. Traditional education institutions haven’t been able to keep up with the demand for people with new skills even when the opportunities exist.

While the conversation about higher education is often centered around students burdened with enormous debt, the truth is that we’re all paying for the cost of an education system that doesn’t work for all. Student loan forgiveness will not solve racial inequality or the ever growing skills gap.

Unless we start to think about a radical alternative to the current system - one that prioritizes equity of access, and skills based learning - we won’t attract the best people or address the growing skills gap. As Professor Scott Galloway describes of college, “We’ve raised prices more than healthcare, but if you walked into a class today it wouldn’t look any different to 40 years ago” .

Apprenticeships are that solution. Because they are funded by companies, they offer a better way of aligning skills development with the needs of employers. Apprenticeships combine a focus on applied learning with a curriculum designed with employers to teach the relevant skills, behaviors and mindset needed in the workplace. Just like college, apprentices leave with a qualification. Unlike college, they earn while they learn in a full time job. 

By using an applied learning approach, apprentices get a world-class education that rivals the best college experience. Rather than lectures in classrooms, miles from actual jobs, over the course of eighteen months apprentices have skills tested, repeated and embedded. The focus on immediate and regular application in the workplace, supported by dedicated coaches who are experts in their field, means apprentices develop the skills and practical expertise they need for a successful career.

Apprenticeships are often associated with manual jobs or traditional trades, and remain a proven route to success in these industries. But they are so much more. Apprenticeships are the best way to develop the tech skills demanded by modern workplaces: skills in software engineering, data science and digital marketing. It’s no wonder that in 2021 there is real momentum behind professional apprenticeships. We’ve seen the Biden Administration commit to investing $50 billion in training and apprenticeships, while some of the world’s best employers (IBMGoogle and Walmart) have thrown themselves behind apprenticeships and applied learning. 

We have an opportunity to level the playing field and think differently about how we bring talent into all of our organizations. As the chief executives of 37 major companies commit to hiring 1 million black Americans, apprenticeships can play a major part in improving equity. Apprenticeships challenge companies to recruit based on the real predictors of job success, like grit, conscientiousness and interpersonal skills. Companies that get it right can reframe who gets access to a great career and then provide the best with a route to the board room. 

Our education system is outdated and it’s failing: not just the people that go through it, but all of us. Societal problems need audacious solutions and this is one system that needs a complete overhaul. Apprenticeships are a better way. For training, reskilling, and for addressing an enormous lack of diversity. If there was ever a time to invest in them, it’s now. 

Sophie Ruddock is the VP, GM of North America at Multiverse, a startup tech company focused on high-quality education and training through a unique apprenticeship model

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.