A bill was introduced in the state legislature to shift control of the state’s apprenticeship program from the Department of Commerce to the community college system. The goal is to streamline the program and make it more aligned with some of the colleges’ workforce development initiatives.

The program, “ApprenticeshipNC,” has been receiving more attention lately, as lawmakers pivot to vocational training programs as a way to boost the education and earning potential of recent high school graduates. The program helps provide students with more postsecondary options and gives them an effective, low-cost alternative to the traditional college pathway.

NC’s apprenticeship program is relatively straightforward. Students indicate their interest in the program and desired career path, and ApprenticeshipNC matches them with a suitable company. Together, along with a local community college, the student and company arrange a class and work schedule. The company generally covers the cost of schooling and pays the apprentice a wage. It lasts one to four years, depending on arrangements the apprentice and company decide. Apprentices can work to become, for instance, machinists and electricians, all while gaining experience with regional and even national companies.

Costs appear to be minimal. Currently, the state sets aside $500,000 annually in commerce’s budget to administer the program. The most recent data indicate more than 5,000 students sign up for the program each year. This means that the state’s investment per pupil in the program is quite small, less than $100. This compares quite favorably, for example, to state investment per pupil in the state’s university system, which is about $17,000 annually.

If there’s one knock against ApprenticeshipNC, it’s that retention within the program appears to need improvement. Only about 50 percent of participants continue after their first year. (It should be noted that a 50 percent retention rate is not far off from the six-year graduation rates of some North Carolina universities, or the national six-year average.)

Relatively low retention rates could be expected in these apprenticeships, since the student often invests little personally into his or her education, and the company generally picks up the tab. In other words, the cost of leaving apprenticeship programs is quite small for both the student and the taxpayer. This is not the case when it comes to dropping out of college, where the opportunity costs and wasted resources can be significant.

At any rate, North Carolina is not alone in offering an apprenticeship program. Nineteen other states offer one. And the U.S. Department of Labor has set up a program of “registered apprenticeships” that ensures students who complete a recognized program are able to use their trade nationally. It also helps regulate completion requirements across state programs. In North Carolina and elsewhere, 2,000 hours of work and 144 classroom hours are the standard.

Apprentices can expect to boost lifetime earnings by around $300,000 over their peers who only complete high school. Private companies investing in the program also receive the benefit of creating a pipeline of trained, highly skilled workers who are familiar with their operations.

With so much to gain and so little to lose from apprenticeships, it’s encouraging the North Carolina legislature is beginning to pay more attention to them. If matching students to careers is the goal, the legislature should continue to explore ways to improve and expand NC’s apprenticeship program. Rather than spend millions on the fantasy that college is for everyone, the state could receive big returns by investing in the postsecondary education most suitable to the fields in which many North Carolinians will eventually find work.

Alex Contarino is a research assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.