According to a recent report by Pew Research Center, just 16% of Americans think that four-year degrees prepare students "very well" for a well-paying job in today's economy. Among college graduates, only half think their degree offered them specific, job-related skills and knowledge or opened up job opportunities. And the average graduate is saddled with $30,000 in debt, a figure that increases every year.

As a result of poor preparation for the real world, college graduates take jobs short of their potential, which may explain why 70% of millennials are disengaged (and therefore underperforming) at work. Today's entry-level employees job hop, fail to get promoted and feel unfulfilled while employers suffer from their subpar technical skills.

In our information and tech-driven economy, training has never been so important. For the last several decades, employment has skyrocketed in jobs requiring high levels of education, training and experience (from 49 million workers in 1980 to 83 million workers in 2015). When Pew asked workers what success takes in today's economy, 82% said "access to training to update skills." Likewise, 61% of 18-29 year olds see skills and training as "essential" to their future career success.

Training and apprenticeships benefit the economy, individuals and companies. Research shows that raising a workforce's quality of skills can generate a "substantial payoff in economic growth." A large study of employer apprenticeships across 10 U.S. states recorded significant individual earnings gains from participating. And multiple European studies suggest that employers gain financially from formal employee training programs as well.

Yet company training programs are not exploding; they're waning. According to various data, the percentage of American employers offering formal training to their employees is between just 20-40%.

My experience as Executive Director of DenverWorks, which helps workers train for and find jobs, has taught me that employee apprenticeships may be the solution.

What's an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships are like prestigious, on-the-job community colleges. But instead of paying between $10,000 and $60,000 a year, apprentices get paid--often as much as $40,000 annually right out of high school. "Apprenticeship is the other college--except without the debt," U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said.

There are currently hundreds of skills-based apprenticeships in every state, ranging from welding and construction management to carpentry and architecture. New models broaden potential fields and increase mass appeal. Through public-private apprenticeship collaborations, students can get hands-on education and training in fields as diverse as IT, financial services, business operations and hospitality.

Apprenticeships have seen enormous success in other countries. While just .2% of employees are apprentices in the U.S., between 2-3% of employees in Canada, Germany and Australia are apprentices. Switzerland's post-secondary apprenticeship program has garnered the participation of 40% of its companies, and 70% of Swiss students opt in. In consequence, Switzerland's youth unemployment rate is under 4% (compared to the U.S.'s effective 12.8%).

How do you structure one?

Apprenticeship programs vary in structure. The key to structuring an apprenticeship program is being in tune with company needs. "Apprenticeship opportunities should be determined by firms, not by bureaucrats," said the Director of Economic Policy Studies at AEI, Michael Strain.

Companies develop apprenticeships programs for one basic reason: They are unable to recruit talented employees with interpersonal, critical thinking, and leadership skills. For companies that rely on promoting from within, this can be troublesome when recruiting for management or even senior positions. Companies should determine scope of the programs in-conjunction with the soft skill competencies their human resource departments internally develop.

Apprenticeships should be paid roughly on par with equivalent entry-level positions.

How long does it run?

Apprenticeship programs only operate extensively in two states: Georgia and Wisconsin. In Georgia, apprentices engage in 2,000 hours of work-based learning in addition to 144 hours of classroom instruction. In Wisconsin, programs run between one and two years.

But, of course, an apprenticeship can be run anywhere if an employer is motivated. If you're considering offering your own, apprenticeships shouldn't exceed four years in length.

How do you recruit people for it?

Apprenticeships have traditionally been the backbone of our labor force. Interest in these programs has declined in part due to lack of effort from companies and inadequate PR.

Businesses, labor unions and technical institutions are now turning to community-based career preparation organizations to recruit apprentices. Partnering with your city's employment office or local non-profits matching businesses with qualified workers can help your company find large numbers of motivated and interested apprenticeship candidates.

Businesses should also directly recruit youth talent. In addition to visiting college campuses to recruit college grads, companies should visit high schools and offer their program as an intensive, paid alternative to a costly, lengthy, potentially fruitless college education.

Apprenticeship programs can alleviate student debt, supplement skills and reduce youth unemployment. If our companies embrace them, they can be the brighter future of modern education.

Published on: Dec 8, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.