Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Apprenticeships for the U.S. Economy

The U.S. economy has a major problem with unemployment, and in particular with unemployment of low-skilled workers. Apprenticeships are one major way that other countries, like Germany, have addressed this issue. Diane Auer Jones, a former  former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education and now at something called the Career Education Corporation in Washington, DC, writes about this in the Summer 2011 issue of Issues in Science and Technology, in an article called "Apprenticeships Back to the Future."

One useful takeaway from the article is the contrast between how apprenticeship programs are a central element of education for the vast majority of students in places like Germany and Switzerland, while they are comparatively so minor in the U.S. labor market.

What apprenticeship programs are like in Germany and Switzerland
"In Germany and Switzerland, for example, apprenticeships are a critical part of the secondary education system, and most students complete an apprenticeship even if they plan to pursue postsecondary education in the future. It is not uncommon for German or Swiss postsecondary institutions to require students to complete an apprenticeship before enrolling in a tertiary education program. In this way, apprenticeships are an important part of the education continuum, including for engineers, nurses, teachers, finance workers, and myriad other professionals."

"An apprenticeship is a formal, on-the-job training program through which a novice learns a marketable craft, trade, or vocation under the guidance of a master practitioner. Most apprenticeships include some degree of theoretical classroom instruction in addition to hands-on practical experience. Classroom instruction can take place at the work site, on a college campus, or through online instruction in partnership with public- or private-sector colleges. Some apprenticeships are offered as one-year programs, though most span three to six years and require apprentices to spend at least 2,000 hours on the job. Apprentices are paid a wage for the time they spend learning in the workplace. Some apprenticeship sponsors also pay for time spent in class, whereas others do not. Some sponsors cover the costs associated with the classroom-based portion, whereas others require apprentices to pay tuition out of their wages. All of these details are part of the apprenticeship contract ..."

"In Switzerland, almost 70% of students between the ages of 16 and 19 participate in dual-enrollment vocational education and training (VET) programs, which require students to go to school for one to two days per week and spend the rest of their time in paid on-the-job training programs that last three to four years. ... Apprentices are subjected to regular assessments in the classroom and on the job, culminating in final exams associated with certification. In 2008, the completion rate for Swiss apprentices was 79%, and the exam pass rate among program completers was 91%. One of the main benefits of the Swiss apprenticeship system is that nearly 70% of all students participate in it, which means that students of all socioeconomic and ability levels are engaged in this form of learning. Such widespread involvement prevents the social stigmatization of apprenticeship programs, unlike in the United States where social prestige is almost exclusively preserved for college-based education and training. Moreover, because students entering dual-track VET programs are frequently high performers, they are academically indistinguishable from the students who elect university education rather than vocational training or dual education. As a result, Swiss dual-track VET students are likely to enter the workplace well prepared for work by possessing strong academic skills."

The status of apprenticeship programs in the United States

"In the United States, however, apprenticeships generally have been considered to be labor programs for training students to work in the skilled trades or crafts. They are not viewed as education programs, so they have not become a conventional part of most secondary or postsecondary systems or programs. ..."

"Apprenticeship programs do exist in the United States, but they are vastly underused, poorly coordinated, nonstandardized, and undervalued by students, parents, educators, and policymakers. The first successful federal legislative effort to promote and coordinate apprenticeships was the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937, commonly known as the Fitzgerald Act. This act treated apprentices not as students but as laborers, and it authorized the Department of Labor (DOL) to establish minimum standards to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of apprentice workers. The DOL still retains oversight responsibility through its Office of Apprenticeships, but the office receives an anemic annual appropriation of around $28 million."

"In each state, the DOL supports a state apprenticeship agency that certifies apprenticeship sponsors, issues certificates of completion to apprentices, monitors the safety and welfare of apprentices, and ensures that women and minorities are not victims of discriminatory practices. In 2007, the latest year for which data are available, there were approximately 28,000 Registered Apprenticeship programs involving approximately 465,000 apprentices. Most of the programs were in a handful of fields and industries, including construction and building trades, building maintenance, automobile mechanics, steamfitting, machinist, tool and dye, and child care."


In America, many schools and parents and students will speak out strongly in favor of strong commitments to "community service" and volunteer projects and unpaid short-term internships. But many of these same people tend to recoil if the discussion turns to devoting similar amounts of time to a paid apprenticeship. As an American, it's hard to imagine a Swiss-style system where 70% of students, spread across the distribution of incomes and education levels, are in apprenticeship programs. It's hard to think about apprenticeships that would spread across a much wider range of jobs and industries than we currently see in the U.S. Such a change would require a substantial adjustment from firms, existing employees, schools, government, and students themselves. But the current hand-off from the education system to the job market isn't going too well for a lot of Americans at a wide array of skill levels. Maybe apprenticeships could help.