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Education Innovation
Could the Apprenticeship Model Work Here?

If college education is too expensive or too narrowly tailored, but it remains difficult to get a good job without a degree, what are you to do? One perennially popular solution is to start “apprenticeship” programs that train workers for vocations that don’t require a college degree. Germany has been particularly notable for its successful apprenticeship programs, and recently the WSJ profiled several American attempts by both the federal government and certain state governments to recreate the German model—unfortunately, to little success.

These programs attempt to close the so-called “skills gap”—the difference between the skills employers are looking for and the skills that job seekers actually have. The U.S. programs look to close the gap by enrolling students in training courses that work in the following way:

The students, paid by the companies, spend three to four days a week doing on-the-job training within companies and the rest of the time taking classes at public vocational schools. Curricula are developed by employers’ associations, trade unions and the federal government. Costs vary but average roughly $20,000 a year, typically for three years.

“The apprenticeship has been the best choice of my professional life,” said Amy Mitchum, a 37-year-old Tennessee resident who left her job as a membership manager for a real-estate agency three years ago to join an apprenticeship program run by Volkswagen AG. […]

She now earns $22 an hour, about 50% more than the median wage in her state. In a few years, she’ll likely move up to $30 an hour—alongside benefits including health insurance, a bonus, pension plan and good deals on cars.

There is, however, a glitch. State and federal investment in these programs hasn’t changed the fact that they largely recruit only German companies with a U.S. presence. American companies are reluctant to get involved, in large part because they hesitate to invest so much time and money without any guarantee that the employees will stay with the company once they are trained. The U.S. has a much more mobile workforce than Germany does; American workers change jobs three times as often as their German counterparts.

Given that, American companies’ tepid response to apprenticeship programs is understandable. We think this approach still has some promise and merits continued experimentation; these kinds of programs are attempting to meet a very real need for paths to good jobs that don’t run through the college quad. If the German model can’t be simply imported to the U.S., perhaps it can inspire other ways of tackling the skills gap and building up better vocational training. We see signs of that in some fields already; the key is to build on the lessons these experiments teach us so we can craft programs that will succeed here.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The first thing which needs to be said is that it’s apparently pretty difficult these days to get a job for which a college degree qualifies you. The brutal fact is that far too many unqualified kids are going to college and far too many graduates are over-qualified for the available jobs. What’s needed are incentives not to go to college but to learn a marketable skill instead. The obvious vehicle for this is the Community College system, which should switch it’s primary focus from college-prep to trade schooling. The role of employers in this is to encourage the acquisition of the skills which they do not necessarily need in their employees. There are two parts to this: encouraging schools to teach marketable skills, and encouraging students to take advantage of this. What worked for me was a paid half-day at school in exchange for taking two evening classes (and, of course, passing the courses).

  • Corlyss

    It probably would work if educators’ mindset for the last 50 years could be changed and we could buy off the flagging unions. The drumbeat for every single child to go to college has given us unrealistic goals for educators and no fallback. High schools need to have fall back curricula for those who . . . don’t WANT to go to college. Right now, those folks are thrown out of the system to find their own way. Personally, I think that is failing the customer.

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