Skills and training

Four Reasons Why Public Sector Apprenticeships Can Help Catalyze an Economic Recovery

Diana Elliott, Andrew Campbell, John Marotta March 18, 2021

Public sector apprenticeships are a powerful and underutilized tool for workforce and economic development. When state and local governments create apprenticeship programs for roles where hiring is a challenge, they benefit from an infusion of talent. At the same time, apprentices receive benefits by earning wages, learning new skills, and building valuable work experience.

Because of pandemic-related shutdowns, state and local governments have had declines in revenue that led to extensive job cuts in the public sector, putting economic recovery at risk. Increasing public sector apprenticeships could be a valuable short- and long-term strategy for recovery that improves government functioning, economic development prospects, private sector hiring, and the economic mobility of underemployed residents. We identify four reasons why increasing public sector apprenticeships is a workforce development strategy worthy of consideration now and for the recovery that follows.

They can attract and retain the next generation of public servants

In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, 87 percent of human resources professionals in state and local government cited recruitment and retention as an important workforce issue. With state and local government workers retiring in greater numbers year-over-year, maintaining a capable workforce is a priority. Meanwhile, younger workers seek jobs that offer social impact and prefer opportunities with a mission-driven employer over ones offering higher pay, suggesting that state and local government work should be attractive to many. Yet application numbers remain below expectations.

Hiring managers in state and local government are increasingly viewing apprenticeship as a new pathway for young people to enter public service. Apprenticeship allows young people to learn on the job, be mentored, get paid, make productive contributions, and earn credentials. In return, local and state governments cultivate a motivated workforce with high retention at a lower cost.  

They can create pathways for economic mobility and racial equity

Apprenticeship opens access to careers for those who might not have such opportunities otherwise. First, apprenticeship emphasizes learning by doing, with more hours spent on-the-job than in the classroom. Second, apprentices do not need credentials because they are trained on-the-job—advantageous to those who learn best by doing. Third, those for whom a college degree is out of reach financially may earn university credits through their apprenticeship training that are reimbursed by employers. Finally, apprentices earn income while they train, which is critical to help people meet basic needs while investing in their future.

Public sector jobs have historically been stable with family-sustaining wages and benefits and flexibility that exceed offerings in the private sector. Government has also historically been a major employer of Black workers, and many government hiring managers work to ensure the demographics of those employed by local government reflect the residents it serves. Apprenticeships in local and state government can offer long-term career trajectories and meaningful training that promote the economic mobility of apprentices and their families.

They can rebuild the public sector workforce while also training workers for the private sector

Compared with February 2020, roughly 10 million fewer jobs exist in the US and more than 4 million people have exited the labor force, disproportionately women. State and local governments have shed about 1.4 million jobs because of layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes, and unfilled positions; through December 2020, 1 in every 10 jobs lost during the pandemic was a local government job. Declines in state and local government workforces have resulted in reduced staff available to tackle urgent issues facing communities, as well as burnout and low morale among civil servants.

Public sector apprenticeships can boost government workforce capacity while also addressing immediate employment issues in the greater community. They guarantee participants a year or more of on-the-job learning, full-time work experience, and résumé-building that help them secure permanent government or private sector employment. Apprenticeships are a highly effective pathway to permanent employment; since 2017, 94 percent of workers who completed an apprenticeship were still employed six months later.

The pandemic has accelerated job-changing and retraining, and public sector apprenticeships can reskill workers for future jobs. Apprenticeships are driven by employer needs, so apprentices are trained for occupations that are most in demand. For example, Kentucky has a successful state agency computer support specialist apprenticeship that trains workers to have skills that are immediately transferrable to private or public sector careers.

They can mitigate harms caused by long-term unemployment

Without investment, recessions can have long-term negative consequences for workers who experience prolonged unemployment, known as “scarring.” Effects of scarring include wage stagnation, loss of job mobility, and increased risk of future unemployment. Scarring can be especially damaging for young people if they experience un- or underemployment early in their working lives.

To mitigate the negative effects of prolonged unemployment, especially in times of crisis, governments regularly invest in workforce development programs by taking on training costs to upskill citizens, expand employment opportunities, and increase productivity. Apprenticeships are a proven tool to do this and other countries are leading the way. During the pandemic, Australia made a 1.2 billion dollar investment to incentivize the creation of 100,000 new apprenticeships, and the European Union committed 22 billion euros to support guaranteed work-based learning opportunities for residents younger than 30.

Some experts do not expect a full labor market recovery until late 2022, so it is wise to invest now in workforce development opportunities like apprenticeship for the long-term recovery and resilience of workers. Further, with economic development projects stalled but still necessary to undertake—including infrastructure, broadband, and renewable energy efforts—states and industry partners will need workers with specialized training.

Overall, public sector apprenticeships bridge the needs of local and state governments to train the next generation of workers and benefit the wider economy. The Urban Institute and the Council of State Governments are embarking on a new initiative to support five states in advancing public sector apprenticeships. This partnership will serve as an example of how government can improve services and capacity, advance the training of residents equitably, and spark near- and long-term workforce and economic development. When government is a model employer and catalyst for best practices, all residents benefit.