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Illinois could lower unemployment with more apprenticeship programs

Two men wearing hard-hats, safety goggles and tool belts inspect a metal rafter.

Students learn to make metal rafters at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters’ Apprentice and Training Program in Elk Grove Village in 2018.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

 If you’re looking for a job in Illinois, I’m sorry. It’s hard for you because Illinois is failing to do its job. The state hasn’t created enough of the right infrastructure to teach skills for jobs employers need.    

In December, Illinois’ 4.7% unemployment rate, the fourth highest in the nation, meant there were more than 304,000 people looking for a job. At the same time, there were an estimated 391,000 job openings as of November 2023. But if those 304,000 people had the right skills, they could fill some, if not most, of these 391,000 jobs.

Illinois needs to fix its “skills gap” problem. It can do that in part by prioritizing skills-based training and apprentice-type programs that get people the skills and training they need to have a career without a college degree. To get there, we must first discard the “college is best” model that’s not working. While college is a good choice for many students, it is not the right choice for many others.

Opinion bug


In Chicago alone, there are 53,000 residents with at least a bachelor’s degree who live in poverty, according to our analysis of 2022 Census data. Research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows only 31% of Americans actually need post-secondary education for their jobs. And earning those degrees comes at the cost of time, money and usually debt.  

The better way to prepare people for viable careers is to move to a work-based educational model that translates tangible skills into good, well-paying jobs. This “career-first” model prioritizes professions that are in high demand now and will continue to be in demand as the economy evolves.  

Apprenticeships are a proven work-based educational model. According to the Center for American Progress, apprentices earn higher wages, receive education while taking on little or no debt, and often find immediate full-time employment that pays well. A report from the Progressive Policy Institute showed individuals who complete an apprenticeship earn an average salary of $77,000, far above the $55,000 average national salary. 

One model of an effective apprenticeship program is just north of us. The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program combines academic (high school) and technical instruction with mentored, paid, hands-on learning. It requires 450 hours of work-based learning and two semesters of classroom instruction related to the field each year for up to two years. Self-reported data show nearly 75% of program graduates were offered continued employment upon completing the program.  

Illinois has some of the basic infrastructure for good apprenticeship programs. The state has career and technical education programs in select secondary schools, totaling 424 registered apprenticeship programs as of 2024.

The bad news is these programs are tiny. We only dedicate $34 million annually to secondary school apprenticeships, according to the Illinois Future of Work Task Force Report. Of the 611,732 students in Illinois secondary schools in 2022, only 22,713 were career concentrators.

Illinois needs to reallocate significant resources inside our public school system to increase the size and scope of these programs. For now, job seekers can rely on innovative apprenticeship programs inside private organizations.

For example, Curt’s Café’s structured work and life training program in Evanston has helped 550 students learn culinary techniques and marketable skills, while closing educational gaps, building confidence and getting job placement assistance. Chicago-based Monarch Thrift Shop is working to end youth homelessness and reduce recidivism by providing at-risk youth with both job and soft-skills training. And they’re innovating to make their programs better by including the acquisition of a nationally recognized certificate from the National Retail Foundation that shows the individual is prepared with the skills to work in retail, the top private sector employer in the country.  

Mayor Lori Lightfoot had the right idea in May 2023 when she launched the DiverseTech apprenticeship program. It seeks to train 25 apprentices in fields like cybersecurity and digital services. In 2023, the Illinois General Assembly amended the Illinois Works Jobs Program Act to include the Illinois Works Apprenticeship Initiative, which requires apprentices to perform 10% of total labor on public works projects estimated to cost more than $500 million.

At the federal level, in 2023 U.S. Rep Nikki Budzinski of Illinois introduced the Leveraging and Energizing America's Apprenticeship Program Act, which gives businesses a $1,500 tax break for every vocational school-trained apprentice they hire during their first three years of employment.

These types of programs are worth trying, evaluating and expanding if they work.

Joshua Bandoch, Ph.D., is head of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates. 

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