Driving development of upskilling and reskilling initiatives

How the Rethink Adult Ed Challenge spurred new high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs — at scale.


America’s need for more skilled workers is persistent and growing, but accessing training and work opportunities isn’t always easy. Making critical investments in equitable, accessible adult education can help adult learners connect with high-potential jobs that offer economic mobility.


Apprenticeships open pathways into rewarding careers across a range of industries — from manufacturing and construction to technology and healthcare. And this type of work-based learning is on the rise: In the United States, the number of new apprenticeship programs doubled between 2009 and 2019. But many adult learners face barriers to accessing apprenticeship opportunities; they may not have the requisite skills, supplies, or support to participate.

Pre-apprenticeships break down these barriers by helping adults enter, prepare for, and succeed in apprenticeships and other industry roles. To drive greater and more diverse participation in apprenticeships and the broader workforce, America needs more pre-apprenticeships across a broad range of industries.


Luminary Labs designed and produced the Rethink Adult Ed Challenge, the U.S Department of Education’s $750,000 competition to advance pre-apprenticeships. We started by rapidly analyzing the existing landscape of pre-apprenticeships and bringing a diverse group of experts — learners, educators, and industry leaders — together to discuss barriers and opportunities. This early research helped us better understand what it would take to increase educators’ capacity for delivering high-quality programs and elevate the role of adult education in pre-apprenticeships.

The competition launched in September 2020. Stage 1 asked adult education providers to design programs that better prepare learners for apprenticeships and beyond. AEFLA-funded adult education providers — such as higher education institutions, community and faith-based organizations, correctional facilities, and libraries — submitted preliminary designs for pre-apprenticeship programs that would lead into an apprenticeship or similar role in an industry with high demand. The review panel selected 95 finalists to progress to Stage 2’s virtual accelerator.

Most accelerators — virtual or otherwise — offer support to a small cohort of participants, but the Rethink Adult Ed Challenge was designed to provide technical assistance at scale. After assessing finalists’ needs, we created a library of resources organized by topic. The five-month accelerator offered access to self-paced, virtual content, as well as interactive sessions with experts and an online community forum.

Finalists refined their program designs, and at the end of the accelerator, submitted detailed proposals. The judging panel — which brought together experts in adult education, workforce development, and social services — evaluated 85 submissions from 31 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam.

In September 2021, the U.S. Department of Education announced the grand-prize winner and the four runners-up. The winners’ programs span a range of industries, from construction and manufacturing to marine transportation and healthcare. The grand-prize winner, Northampton Community College, is offering a manufacturing pre-apprenticeship in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to help participants build academic, digital, and workplace skills. Through the program, Northampton Community College aims to develop pathways into industrial maintenance careers while supporting expansion of the region’s second-largest employment sector. While apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships are often associated with specific roles or industries, the finalists’ designs show that high-quality work-based learning opportunities can create pathways to many types of careers, for many different types of learners.


The impact of the challenge extended well beyond the five winning programs. Our survey of finalists found that most respondents planned to implement a program — regardless of whether they received prize money. Prior to entering the virtual accelerator, only 39% of respondents felt “confident” or “very confident” about implementing a pre-apprenticeship program; by the end of Stage 2, that number jumped to 95%.

To support ongoing development of new pre-apprenticeship programs, we compiled the virtual accelerator’s resources into an online workshop and an on-demand “Creating Adult Pre-Apprenticeships” course that is now accessible to providers across the United States via the Department’s LINCS platform.