The Mixed Methods Blog

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Students’ Perspectives on Apprenticeships and Workforce Education

Three people speaking on a virtual call.

In response to technological advancements and shifting workplace skill demands, colleges are adjusting workforce programs to meet the rapidly changing needs of employers. But while the needs of students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are also changing, students’ perspectives on what makes workforce programs effective don’t receive enough consideration. For community colleges to design effective career support systems and pathways, understanding students’ thinking and their experiences is an important step. To address this, I studied the academic and career aspirations of community college occupational students for my master’s project in the sociology and education department at Teachers College, providing insight into how workforce programs can help socioeconomically disadvantaged students achieve their career goals.

Given the volatility of the current economy and labor market, students, especially older and low-income students, may gravitate toward credit and noncredit workplace training programs that can be completed quickly. In interviews with administrators as well as three students enrolled in degree and non-degree programs at a community college in the Midwest, I found that training programs that provide quicker entry into the labor market were appealing because of their efficiency and affordability. In particular, community college apprenticeship programs that provide direct work experience with a path to an associate degree were desired and considered beneficial education programs by these students.

I also found that the high costs of higher education compared to the costs (and perceived economic value) of a community college apprenticeship made some students question whether a four-year degree was the right path, at least in the short term. One student said that the cost of college pushed them to the trades.

“Nowadays school is so expensive, so you kind of look elsewhere. At an apprenticeship, you can make even more money because you are trained at the same time, so cost is a major factor,” they said. “When you’re done with your training, you already have a job, so you already have a career lined up and you’re ready to go.”

Students liked that community college apprenticeships combined education, technical training, and on-the-job experience. For them, earning a wage while attending college was an efficient and rewarding academic path, and for students coming from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, an apprenticeship provided an important opportunity for upward social mobility.

Apprenticeships have the potential to help students enter good careers while filling a demand for trained or partly trained workers. High-quality apprenticeships (and other forms of work-based learning such as internships) created through partnerships between community colleges and strong local employers provide students with valuable experiential learning opportunities. While demand for middle-skill employees has increased sharply in the areas of healthcare and construction, declining enrollments in community colleges pose challenges for meeting this workforce need. Since the pandemic, community college enrollment has declined by 10%. Apprenticeships (both credit and noncredit) and noncredit workforce training could help community colleges rebuild enrollment if they tailor their programs to the needs of students attracted to the programs. Community colleges could also build stronger connections between short-term programs and degree programs so that students have the option to return for a degree later.

The noncredit divisions of community colleges may be an area where educators can simultaneously address the immediate workforce needs of employers in the aftermath of the pandemic and the desires of students—by adapting short-term, work-based training programs that appeal to students and can meet the current demands of local economies. While modifying the curriculum of traditional credit-bearing courses requires adherence to specific academic procedures, noncredit programs allow for easier adaptation to the needs of employers. Historically, community colleges have collaborated with companies through noncredit contract training programs to develop customizable curriculum and apprenticeships. Additionally, noncredit programs’ open-enrollment policies have the potential to expand access to higher education for minoritized, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and academically underprepared students.

While noncredit and non-degree credentials may help meet students’ short-term goals, employers and colleges must also consider the longer-term goal that many students have to earn a degree, which is increasingly necessary to land a good job that pays a family-sustaining wage. Typically, noncredit programs do not build to associate or bachelor’s degree programs (though this is beginning to change at some innovative colleges). Occupational students enrolled in both noncredit certificate and associate degree programs told me that earning a degree was an important long-term goal and as important to them as gaining immediate employment. One student who began their community college education with noncredit workforce training courses and successfully completed an apprenticeship with an associate degree reflected on this accomplishment.

“There's nothing better than getting the actual degree at the end of it and posting it on the wall—then you really know the feeling of what it means to you,” they said.

Students in the study held their degrees and other credentials in high regard. As colleges develop workforce programs, it’s important to provide long-term academic opportunities for students by connecting noncredit programs to degree pathways.

As the economy readjusts from the effects of the pandemic, declining enrollments are a challenge that colleges must overcome. As I discovered in my master’s research, apprenticeships may attract aspiring trainees to community college occupational programs, allowing students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to earn a wage while completing coursework. However, noncredit coursework or work-based learning programs must be integrated with long-term degree and career pathways to make them more useful to students over the long term. Each of the students I spoke with valued higher education and considered earning a degree a significant achievement. As colleges redesign and modify their workforce training programs, meeting the needs of the economy is critical, but it’s also important to address students' aspirations and their long-term academic and career goals.


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