Apprenticeships offer economic opportunity for Illinoisans

Apprenticeships offer economic opportunity for Illinoisans

College degrees are just one potential path to prosperity. Apprenticeships are a viable alternative Illinois’ education system should embrace.

A college degree has been regarded as a prerequisite to attaining economic prosperity and social mobility, but with some college-educated Illinoisans faltering there are questions about Illinois’ “college-first” approach to K-12 education.

Apprenticeships offer a promising alternative.

Graduates of public universities in Illinois have the worst return on investment in the Midwest, according to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. Illinois also has the highest Midwest share of undergraduate programs with a negative return on investment, at 29.9%.

Too many Illinois college graduates are also underemployed, meaning they are “working in jobs that do not require a degree or make meaningful use of college-level skills.” The Burning Glass Institute found 44% of recent college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in Illinois were underemployed as of February.

For many of those Illinoisans, apprenticeships could be a better option. Apprenticeships allow people to learn on the job without incurring student debt and while earning a living. Apprenticeships are well paid. According to the Progressive Policy Institute, people who complete an apprenticeship earn an average salary of $77,000 compared to the national average salary of $55,000.

Enrolling in a registered apprenticeship program is a better option for many Illinois workers than attending a college or a university, according to a report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute. The average annual gain from participating in an apprenticeship program is $3,442, or $119,850 in additional income over the course of a worker’s career after accounting for out-of-pocket upfront costs. Apprenticeship programs put more into participants pockets each year than an associate’s degree, which adds $542 per year. Bachelor’s degrees also yield less than an apprenticeship, with social work majors adding $3,199 per year, English majors $2,521 and foreign language majors $2,338.

Despite these benefits, there are a number of barriers to expanding apprenticeships in Illinois. These include burdensome regulations, low awareness of apprenticeships and stigmatization of apprenticeship programs as “lower status” than traditional degrees.

Illinois and federal lawmakers can remove these barriers by cutting red tape and reforming the registration process. There are also successful apprenticeship models in other states from which Illinois can learn.

The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program, for example, combines academic and technical instruction by requiring 450 hours of work-based learning and two semesters of classroom learning related to the field for up to two years. It saw 60% of two-year apprentices offered continued employment after completion of the apprenticeship program, and 80% received a high school diploma upon completion of the apprenticeship program.

There are also steps being taken at the federal and local levels. In 2023, U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-IL, introduced the Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Program Act, which would give businesses a $1,500 tax break for every vocational school-trained apprentice they hired during their first three years of employment.

In Chicago, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced the DiverseTech apprenticeship program, which sought to train 25 apprentices in cybersecurity and digital services.

By emulating successful models and eliminating unnecessary barriers, Illinois lawmakers can expand economic opportunity. First, they need to expand public schools’ missions beyond college prep.

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