Simon Ashworth is chief policy officer of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

The USA is famously referred to as ‘the land of opportunity’, but is that true for UK providers? Earlier this month a trade mission of 15 delegates visited Washington DC, a trip organised by Frankin Apprenticeships and made up mainly of AELP members. At AELP we have seen a growing interest in our International Special Interest Group with an expanding number of members interested in overseas markets.

From the outset it’s important to point out that apprenticeships in the USA are not a new concept. In fact, two of the USA’s best known apprentices were none other than George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. In terms of the USA landscape there are already around 500,000 apprentices currently on programme across the country. I use the word ‘around’ as the USA has a very different system to the UK of having ‘recognised’ and ‘non-recognised’ apprenticeship programmes. The 500k+ includes all the apprentices on the recognised programmes – no one is able to provide any data on the volume of non-recognised apprentices.

Let’s looks at some key stats:

  • Around 20% of the current 500k apprentices are through the US military
  • Around 20% of all the recognised apprentices in the US are employed in construction
  • The average US apprentice is 27 and male. There is a massive gender imbalance, with less than 10% of recognised apprentices in the US being female
  • There is a near on 50%:50% split between the individual states in regards governance by federal or individual state level
  • Achievement rates hover around the 40% rate.

The challenges in the US for higher education are simply mind boggling – with overall student loan debt currently bulging at $1.3 trillion which equates to roughly $37,000 per student. Paying huge sums does not even equate to a guarantee of success with only around 60% of those going to university actually achieving their degree.

The two key drivers which we heard repeated over and over again at the inaugural US Presidential Task Force which we observed focused on the aforementioned spiralling student debt problem and a widening national economic skills gaps. To quantify that last point, there are currently 6.1m job openings in the USA and a similar number of unemployed citizens. Unfortunately, quite simply the skills employers require do not correlate with the skills of the unemployed and this gap is expanding rapidly, threatening the very existence of a number of sectors and industries.

On one evening I was lucky enough to be sat having dinner with the state senator for Maryland who is already a huge advocate of apprenticeship in his state. The senator was keen to discuss the apprenticeship brand which in the US is currently primarily seen by many as a second class route and very much a trade based occupation. How refreshing it was to hear how the US, having looked at the fabled Swiss and German models and although highly respected still, is aspiring to create a model more in line with the system we have in England.

A note to ourselves that maybe we should stop referring to the Swiss and German models and give ourselves some credit for what we have achieved and built in this country.

What really amazed me was the sheer lack of regulation in the USA on apprenticeships. This is simply astounding and represents probably one of the most attractive reasons which will attract foreign intermediaries to move into the market. What are the downsides though? Alas there is no pot of gold. When you get under the skin of the system in the USA, you realise that there is minimal federal subsidy and although at a state level there are some incentives, it ultimately boils down on effective employer engagement and getting employers to invest in training. Sound familiar? No wonder the National Governors Association and the Department of Labor were so keen to understand how we in the UK have managed to engage with employers so effectively and ramp up our own volumes.

In some states it is also highly likely that individual apprentices will end up taking out the equivalent to our own advanced learning loans to pay for their apprenticeship training. The key message is each state is very different in its approach and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Quite clearly tackling the US market needs to be down at a state level rather than at a national level.

The USA certainly is the ‘land of opportunity’; however, those interested in oversees diversification over to the ‘other side of the pond’ clearly need to take a long term view on such a move. We heard much around the effective collaborative approach to share the risk and leverage local knowledge combined with external foreign expertise. Expect UK providers to be part of that approach.

Simon Ashworth is chief policy officer of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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