Book Summary: Apprentice Nation by Ryan Craig

As an approach to cultivating workforce skills, apprenticeship has yet to reach its full potential. In Apprentice Nation: How the “Earn and Learn” Alternative to Higher Education will Create a Stronger and Fairer America, higher education expert Ryan Craig speaks to how the apprenticeship model could be adapted to train a new generation of technology workers in fields that are changing faster than most post-secondary curricula can adapt.

Craig offers a thought-provoking analysis of the shortcomings of a traditional college education in the United States, speaking to both the time commitment and price of advanced education. For many prospective students, he argues the path to a “good first job” is rife with barriers that post-secondary education has been unable to sufficiently overcome. To deliver labour market success, particularly for marginalized and low-income students, he offers practical policy advice designed to better engage employers in training the workforce they need.

In advance of Craig’s closing keynote session at the 2024 Polytechnic Showcase, here’s a short primer to get you thinking about how polytechnics are positioned to support the wider adoption of apprenticeship training in fields beyond the skilled trades. 

Delegate Note:  We’ve purchased a copy of Apprentice Nation for you to take home.  Have your copy signed by the author in advance of his keynote at Algonquin College’s main campus on Thursday, May 16.

Part I: College Nation

In the first part of his book, Craig examines how America became a “college nation” with a critical eye on labour market outcomes. He speaks to the limitations of apprenticeship training in a system that requires employers to take a lead role, restraining expansion beyond the skilled trades.

His primary criticisms of post-secondary institutions relate to:

  1. Program offerings that remain largely unchanged and have failed to adapt to major economic shifts.
  2. Courses taught by instructors who lack industry experience and rely primarily on theoretical knowledge.
  3. The cost of tuition, which has increased at roughly double the rate of inflation.
  4. Institutional focus on prestige and rankings, rather than student outcomes.
  5. Lack of meaningful change to achieve better labour market outcomes.

Craig posits that learning by doing is at the core of the human experience when developing new skills and competencies. By focusing on theory above practice, post-secondary institutions fail to ready graduates for the workplace.

Part II: Learning to Love Apprenticeships

In the second part of his book, Craig looks abroad for examples where apprenticeship has been successfully adapted beyond the skilled trades. He looks to Germany, where corporations have high engagement in apprenticeship of various models, leading students to consider apprenticeship as a first-choice post-secondary pathway. Models and approaches in place in Australia and the United Kingdom are reviewed for potential application to the United States though he acknowledges the barriers posed by the currently complex bureaucratic and infrastructure requirements.

Part III: Becoming an Apprentice Nation

Craig outlines a model of apprenticeship grounded in the use of apprenticeship “intermediaries” – organizations that actively promote apprenticeship to employers as a way to find top talent. While the intermediary role might vary by sector, Craig lands on “high-intervention intermediaries” as an approach best suited to super-charging connections between employers and apprentices.

Craig suggests the Hire-Train-Deploy model is a gold standard, primarily because it positions intermediaries to hire, train and act as the employer of record for apprentices throughout their training, ensuring apprentice engagement and retention while creating a steady and sustainable supply of new talent.

Part IV: Apprentice Nation

In the final section, Craig predicts apprenticeship will emerge as a viable alternative to post-secondary education. He suggests employers will start to prioritize “skills-based hiring” over credentials.

Solutions for post-secondary institutions are offered, including:

  1. Hire lecturers with practical industry experience.
  2. Create industry-recognized certifications.
  3. Prioritize work-integrated learning in course design.
  4. Go ‘all-in’ on career services by ensuring faculty and staff are prepared to help students achieve employment goals.
  5. Develop degree apprenticeships in high-demand sectors.

He concludes by highlighting the urgency of a nationwide apprenticeship program to equip future generations with cutting-edge skills.

Implications for Polytechnics

As Canada’s leading technical and technological training institutions, polytechnics already understand the importance of work-integrated learning, industry-led program design and instructors who have solid subject-matter expertise in their fields. Work readiness is a leading indicator of polytechnic graduate success.

The opportunity outlined in Craig’s most recent book relates to a model that Canada’s polytechnics are already engaged in delivering – apprenticeship training. The challenge he issues relates directly to expanding this model into other fields, adapting work experience opportunities to encourage employer engagement and ensuring programs remain flexible and adaptable as workforce needs change.

About the Author

Ryan Craig, Managing Director, Achieve Partners

Ryan’s commentary on where the puck is going in education and workforce regularly appears in the biweekly Gap Letter, Forbes and Inside Higher Education. He is the author of several books, including A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018), which was named in the Wall Street Journal as one the Books of the Year for 2018. Ryan is a co-founder of Apprenticeships for America, a national nonprofit dedicated to scaling apprenticeships across the U.S. economy and is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.