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Apprenticeships and Online Learning


Apprenticeships have been around a long time, dating back to the Middle Ages as a way to teach work skills – novices learning from expert craftsmen. The United States government formalized an apprenticeship system in 1937 with the Fitzgerald Act that established work standards. Through the years, apprenticeships have seen fluctuations in popularity, but have recently emerged in discussions about 21st century workforce skills and education reform. 

The U.S. Department of Labor defines apprenticeship as "a combination of on-the-job training and related classroom instruction in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation." These formal programs are usually sponsored by employers and employer associations and registered with the federal government as part of the National Apprenticeship System. Apprentices are usually in paid positions that allow them to support themselves while gaining skills in their occupation. Programs vary but apprenticeships are generally 80% on-the-job and 20% in the classroom. This is different from academic internships where the ratio is weighted more heavily toward course work and the work experience is often unpaid.

Registered Apprenticeship programs currently lead to 1,000 different career areas that include occupations in both traditional trades, such as construction, culinary, and manufacturing, and emerging industries including environmental sustainability, health care, and technology. According to a recent report from The Urban Institute [PDF], there were more than 465,000 registered apprentices in 2007. 

Revised regulations from 2008 address the needs of modern employers and workers related to apprentice working conditions, program quality, and flexible training models. One point of flexibility is the use of electronic media in related instruction [PDF]. The new regulations make it permissible for formally registered apprenticeships to engage in online delivery of content. 

Can you become an apprentice online?

While on-the-job training is the largest, most intensive portion of the apprenticeship experience, the classroom time could potentially be delivered online. Canadian education researcher Bradley Hartwig argues that online apprenticeship training may meet a number of current needs, including those related to dynamically changing industries, to fill existing gaps in the workforce, provide greater access to educational opportunities, and combat rising costs associated with training a modern workforce.

Hartwig's research includes a 2007 survey of electrician apprentices to find out what they thought about the possibilities of online training in their programs. Their reactions were mixed. The convenience and flexibility of online delivery were valued, but so were in class discussions and interactions with knowledgeable instructors. Overall, the challenges to be met are similar to those regularly identified in other online learning environments – prevention of cheating and plagiarism, development of effective learning objectives and assessments, development of social learning communities, and provision of technical support and training to apprentices and their instructors and supervisors.

There is evidence that online options may be possible for apprenticeships through programs and initiatives like these:

  • The University of Minnesota-Crookston's Center for Adult Learning joined a consortium with local agricultural businesses to create an online horticultural training program as part of a horticultural apprenticeship. 
  • Nova Scotia Community College is engaged in online learning options with multiple apprenticeship programs primarily in construction and engineering fields. These options allow students the flexibility to combine face-to-face and online environments with varying degrees of interactivity. 
  • M.C. Dean, Inc. and the New England Institute of Technology partnered to provide an online electrical apprentice program. This five year program includes online and on-the-job components and is based on nationally recognized curriculum standards for electrical training.
  • Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses are increasingly offered online at the secondary level. The Frenship (TX) Independent School District provides just one example of online CTE courses for high school students that may be interested in pursuing technical occupations.

Finding Apprenticeship Opportunities

Since employer partnerships are critical to apprenticeship programs, you may see them advertised by individual companies or through trade organizations and associations such as unions. There are also 43 State Offices of Apprenticeship (OA) and six Regional OAs that coordinate Registered Apprenticeships in the U.S. and territories. You can also find more information at One Stop Career Centers in your state. (Take a look at the list of apprenticeship opportunities in Ohio as an example of what is currently available.)

For more information about how formal apprenticeship programs work, general eligibility requirements, and application procedures for opportunities you are interested in, be sure to: refer to the U.S. Department of Labor's website. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes the Career Guide to Industries. Access the 2010-2011 Edition online for more details about specific occupations, potential earnings, and projected employment opportunities. Join Workforce3One's online community to engage in discussions about Registered Apprenticeships and find out about partnerships and other related opportunities. You may also want to search for career and technical education sites, such as like CareerTech.org, which provide career planning tools and resources, as well as updates on related industry news and legislative activities. 

Have you been an apprentice? If so, consider sharing your experiences and thoughts about online options for apprentice training.

August 25th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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