Earn and Learn is a Proven Model. Why Don't We Use it More?

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Earn and learn or apprenticeship exists in traditional industries, but this workforce model can be applied to many other types of work. (Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

By Sarah Hicks

You may not know it, but America is in a national workforce training crisis. Job seekers need specialized training to land better jobs. Meanwhile, employers struggle to find highly skilled job candidates. 

Two experts liken this talent mismatch to a supply chain issue.

“In supply-chain management, you get what you plan for. Companies understand that principle when it comes to the goods that they consume and produce, but not when it comes to the people they hire and train,” write Joseph Fuller, cochair of the Managing the Future of Work project, and Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute.

Fuller and Sigelman argue that employers and workers get what they need when companies focus on job skills and create long-term relationships with training institutions.

The best news? This model already exists. It’s called earn and learn.

What does earn and learn mean?

Older male shoemaker teaches young female apprentice in a shop
One of the biggest benefits of earn while you learn programs is new workers learn skills from experienced coworkers. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Earn and learn is a job-training approach in which the worker earns a paycheck while learning new skills for an in-demand job.

Earn while you learn programs, which include apprenticeships and less formal arrangements, produce results because they focus on the specific skills needed for a particular job.

The model works across all industries, but it works especially well for skilled trade careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, such as those in healthcare, public service, hospitality and energy.

The employer gains an invested employee trained to succeed in a hard-to-fill job. The employee gains relevant work experience for an in-demand profession, earning a paycheck while learning from experienced coworkers.

It’s a practical, accessible and realistic approach to job training.

Earn and learn benefits the workers who need it most

Earn and learn benefits all types of job seekers, but especially those who are frequently overlooked.

Consider these statistics: 

62 percent of Americans aged 25 or older have less than a bachelor's degree

That leaves a large chunk of the population unemployed or underemployed, a group estimated to include about 27 million “hidden workers” in the U.S. 

It’s a frustrating dilemma. As infrastructure and healthcare jobs go unfilled, those most eager to fill them are the least likely to get the training and support services they need. 

And there’s another reality to consider: Most adults can’t afford to choose between working and learning, so the practical solution is to do them at the same time.

That’s why more industries should embrace earn and learn, the model that the traditional trades have perfected.

Where earn and learn works now

Middle aged white skilled worker trains a young black apprentice on how to align pipes
Earn-and-learn opportunities like apprenticeships are common for careers in plumbing and HVAC. (Photo: ALPA PROD /Shutterstock)


Apprenticeship is the most well-known example of the earn-and-learn model. The construction and manufacturing industries have relied on this model for decades.

For some careers, such as pipefitting and steamfitting, it’s the most common pathway.

"I didn’t know anything about the trade before I got accepted," says Todd Clements, a steamfitter who creates piping systems for industrial processes. "With the great instructors and on-the-job training, it helped me develop the skills needed to be a great mechanic in our trade."

Clements’ six-year apprenticeship is the norm for his career. Other earn-and-learn models don’t take as long.

In manufacturing, for example, some companies partner with training academies and community colleges to train current employees.

“An individual might start at the entry-level, move into a middle-skilled position like a technician, and after a few years, the company might say, ‘We have these two or three different types of apprenticeships to move you into,’” says Mary Ann Pacelli, manager of Workforce Development with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

An earn-and-learn opportunity like this could last from two to four years.

And where it could work in other industries

Young emergency workers tend to a man strapped to a backboard
Healthcare is one of the industries embracing the earn-and-learn model. (Photo: Sorn340 Studio Images/Shutterstock)


There are signs the model is being accepted in many other industries, too. Less formal earn-and-learn programs are emerging for other occupations, such as software developer and office manager, according to a recent report from Opportunity@Work and Lightcast.

The report looked at new, traditional and informal apprenticeship opportunities created since 2010.

For example, the report found that registered nurses comprise the largest new apprenticeship group. 

Careers beyond the skilled trades are embracing the apprenticeship model
Traditional trades like plumbing and carpentry still account for a large percentage of earn while you learn opportunities, but other industries are catching on. Some, like registered nurses, are embracing the trend, while others have been slow to catch on such as many management occupations. (Graphic: The Changing Face of Apprenticeships)

The idea is catching on as more employers and industries are taking training in-house or engaging with community colleges to create programs to fill in-demand roles.

It’s paying dividends. As of 2021, the 25 occupations with the greatest hiring demand have apprenticeship programs — six of them created in the past decade.

The change in stance is also opening doors for more people. For example, the report found that nearly 40% of new registered apprenticeships are for roles that traditionally required a college degree.

A bridge to a good job

Middle aged White manager shows young white female apprentice how to work a machine in a print shop
If more industries support earn-and-learn programs, employers and workers will share the benefits. (Photo: goodluz/Shutterstock)


The changing nature of work makes it clear that most industries need to utilize earn while you learn programs to create the workforce they need.

Some partners can help create bridges to good-paying jobs.

Nonprofit job training programs such as Year Up and NPower are chipping away at one segment of the underemployed population: young, low-income adults.

“We know a lot of successful people are not college-educated,” says Kim Mitchell, vice president for program development and operations at NPower. “The programs today are important because we have a huge demand for tech talent in this country.”

These programs are proof that paid training programs work. To help more people and fill job openings, we will need more of them.

It’s not a quick or easy fix, as Fuller and Sigelman explain in Harvard Business Review, but it is possible.

“A complex modern economy requires sophisticated, expertly managed supply chains. It’s time to start building a good one for talent.”

The earn-and-learn model is a good starting point. It can potentially solve the training crisis and put more people on the path to a well-paying and stable career. 

Sarah Hicks is an editor and writer with expertise in workforce training and sustainability.

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