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.