The Apprenticeship Ambivalence
America’s changing landscape, in both school and work, increasingly needs a sound system of apprenticing. Yet many of us cannot see that a period of formal apprenticeship might make more sense than four years of college. Here’s why.
Written by TODD OPPENHEIMER
We Americans have painted ourselves into a very tight corner when it comes to how we educate our workforce. During the last century, as we have extolled the virtues of a college education, we’ve set up generations of young people for expectations they cannot afford, cannot fulfill, or cannot turn into self-sustaining careers when they do get a college degree. To make matters worse, when we compare the U.S. to other countries, it becomes clear that we’ve turned our backs on those who don’t go to college. This has left a huge cohort of talented youngsters without the skills they need for the many industries that are crying for workers.
By now, the statistics making this case abound, beginning with college tuition. When the nation’s student-loan program first started, with the famous post-war G.I. bill in the 1950s, the plan made sense: We were going to help a new generation of America’s young people reap the myriad benefits of a college education. In the decades afterward, as an ever-greater number of students took advantage of those loans to enroll in college, participation in trade schools (often called “vocational education”) declined. Before long, however, so many people had college degrees the credential carried no special distinction; to make matters worse, the cost of those college degrees had become astronomical—thanks to a tripling in the cost of tuitions just between 1980 and 2013.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 37% of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a high school degree is required.
In response, ambitious youngsters sought even higher degrees, further escalating student debt. In 2013, student loan debt across the U.S. topped $1 trillion for the first time; in the 10 years since then, according to the Education Data Initiative, it has nearly doubled, rising to a stunning $1.75 trillion. And it’s estimated that 40 percent of this total was racked up in the pursuit of graduate degrees. All told, this leaves students who have taken out loans carrying an average of $37,000 of debt, which typically must be repaid at comparatively high interest rates (in the spring of 2023, those interest rates have ranged between around 5% and 7.5%).
Have such heavy investments paid off? Apparently not. “Over half of all recent graduates are either unemployed or jobless,” reports Student Debt Relief. “Of the recent graduates who do have a job, many of them are not working in their field of expertise. The biggest employers for this group are Best Buy, Starbucks, Target and Walmart, according to a recent survey of four million profiles on Facebook.” Echoing these findings, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found that 37% of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a high school degree is required.
These trends have also created the mother of all fiascos when it comes to the age-old principle of supply and demand. Too many people with high expectations, which cost them dearly, are chasing too few opportunities—at least in the current economy. As we all know, survey after survey projects a growing demand for “knowledge” workers—those with high analytical and social skills. Then again, those jobs don’t all require sitting at a desk. Nor does the training for them have to be at a four-year college.
In recent years, job opportunities have abounded in fields for which education doesn’t cost you a dime; in fact, if you can get into the right apprenticeship program, you can be paid to learn these professions, earning around $10 an hour while getting on-the-job training.
“There are a lot of kids out there who don’t want to spend their lives sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen.”
Most of these apprenticeships are in fields generally referred to as “the trades”—jobs where you often work with your hands and come home dirty. Since the 1960s, “blue collar” jobs of this sort have been seen as a step down for America’s best and brightest, but as these fields have evolved, so have the skills they require—and the salaries they pay. In many of these professions, after 3 to 5 years of apprenticeship, depending on where you live, you can earn up to $70 an hour just as a journeyman.
This dirty little secret, so to speak, is not getting lost on a growing number of the younger generations. During the COVID pandemic, many community colleges and trade schools were the first to shut down, largely because of the hands-on nature of their curricula. But as demand for their graduates has only grown, some trade schools have been reopening, with little trouble finding applicants. And some of the unions are getting applicants who earned fancy degrees, couldn’t find work in their fields of study, and turned to the trades as a way to pay off their student loans. “They’re getting paid to learn—plus they leave with healthcare benefits and a pension,” says Christopher Haslinger, director of training for The United Association of Apprentices and Journeyman of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry.
Founded in 1889, the UA, as it’s called, is one of the oldest trade unions in the country, and recently has been growing steadily. With a membership today of 45,000, it trains people in all 50 states to help build everything from hospitals, schools, high-rises, underground utilities, power plants, and systems for sustainable energy and water conservation. Much of this work has been getting more sophisticated every year, to the point where the positions can’t even be called blue-collar jobs anymore. “These aren’t workplaces with dirty shop floors,” says Katie Spiker, manager of government affairs for the National Skills Coalition. “These are companies making things like precision lenses, where the workplace is clean, and the jobs require a lot of knowledge in the sciences and technology, offering very innovative careers.”
For those who want to design or supervise some of this work instead of just doing it, UA apprenticeships can also include academic coursework that leads to associates’ and even bachelors’ degrees. In response to the nation’s growing interest in the trades (or its growing need), in 2015, UA started a “pre-apprenticeship” system, which sponsors a “multi-craft curriculum” in 120 high schools across the country, so juniors and seniors can try out different trades.
By all indications, a good many of the young people who enter such apprenticeships (which can be highly competitive in some areas of the country) find the work to be surprisingly satisfying. “To me it’s awesome,” says one UA student. “It’s almost like a scholarship.” Says another: “I’m making more money than I’ve ever made before, doing anything, ever.”
Some youngsters are taking the concept of hands-on work a step further—seeking out careers in old crafts, such as furniture-making, jewelry craft, book-binding, and butchery. This work is “an opportunity to use both their heads and their hands,” says Richard Ocejo, a sociologist and the author of “Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy” (Princeton University Press, 2017). “Learned people are dedicating themselves to these trades despite having other options.” Most of these crafts require long and intense apprenticeships. But if enrollment figures at schools of high craft, like Boston’s North Bennet Street School, are any measure of changing times, more and more young people are game for a new challenge.
For more on North Bennet Street and other top craft programs, see our article: “Summer Workshops for the Aspiring Artisan.” And for information about apprenticeships that involve more than working with your hands, see our sidebar: “Interesting—and Lucrative—Apprenticeships: Suggested Resources.”
This is not to suggest the path to excellence through apprenticeships is always wide open, or rosy. Pitfalls abound (well-documented by a series of articles in The Atlantic). One widely feared pitfall is a phenomenon historically called the “runaway apprentice.” These are apprentices who sign up for an apprenticeship and then quit; employers who invested heavily in their training are then left in the lurch—and not terribly inclined to make the same mistake again.
The U.S. would need to invest an additional $70-$80 billion in apprenticeships and workforce training every year to match the average investment of other industrialized countries.
Overall, however, the “runaway apprentice” syndrome is more myth than reality. While every business will have apprentices who quit, just as many regular workers do, the numbers suggest that most apprentices stay—bringing skills and commitment that add new value to the company’s work. That added value was recently calculated in a study by The Urban Institute, which found that for every $100 a company invests in apprentices, it gets an average ROI (return on investment) of $144.
For companies still wary of those runaways (or whose apprenticeship programs are too thin to keep them), solutions exist, modeled mostly by other nations. The most often cited example is Germany, where apprentices cannot move on without special certifications; if they quit, they don’t get their certifications, or a job.
There may be some important reasons why these restrictions work. First, while most apprentices in the U.S. begin when they’re in their 20s, in other countries they start much younger, which gives them more time to learn and appreciate their trade, and to build some income. Other industrialized countries also invest far more in workforce training than the U.S. does, and the differences are staggering. By one calculation, tallied by the National Skills Coalition, the U.S. would need to invest an additional $70 to $80 billion in apprenticeships and workforce training, every year, to match the average investment of other industrialized countries. If we wanted to just match Canada, the NSC found, we’d need to spend an additional $300 billion. All told, these numbers put the U.S. at the bottom of the list of industrialized nations when it comes to workforce investment. As of last count, in 2018, the only country spending less than we do is Mexico.
One possible explanation for America’s stunning lack of investment in workforce training is basic snobbery. The credentials needed for that “blue-collar” work have typically been granted by community colleges, technical schools, and other programs that most Americans scorn.
Here, for example, is Anthony Carnavale, who served on President George W. Bush’s White House Commission on Technology and Adult Education, and on President Bill Clinton’s National Commission on Employment Policy, speaking to Lolade Fadulu of The Atlantic: “If you’re a politician and you stand in front of a crowd and say, ‘We’re gonna have vocational training in high school,’ every parent in that room is gonna be saying, ‘I’ll be damned if you’re going to put my kid in that, because my kid’s going to college.’” Carnavale is also pessimistic that many employers, or the government, will want to invest much more in apprenticeships, which he says cost between $60,000 to $260,000 per apprentice.
Elliot Washor doesn’t buy it. Washor is co-founder of Big Picture Learning, a public school reform movement launched in 1995 that emphasizes a hands-on, “real world” approach to education, and now encompasses 65 schools in the U.S., with others across the globe. “I’m looking at the exact same data that Carnavale is,” Washor says, “and I see a completely different picture. There are a lot of kids out there who don’t want to spend their lives sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen.”
To Washor, the doubts of policy-makers like Carnavale about apprenticing’s potential should be taken with a large grain of salt. “These are decision-based evidence makers,” he says. “They don’t know the kids, and the sense of meaning and fulfillment that kids today are looking for.”
As we, and our politicians, consider new approaches to workforce training—whether it be in the trades, in high-tech, or, one hopes, in artisan crafts—it might be helpful to look at how our recent presidents, and the current one, have approached the problem.
If we start with the Obama Administration, we got a somewhat ambitious effort to, in a sense, seed the garden, by investing in technical schools and community colleges. That was fine as far as it went, but it wasn’t much connected to industry, and its evolving demands. Next came the Trump Administration, which paid a lot of attention to industry demands (cutting a number of worker protections in the process). The Trump team’s plan was to fund something called “industry-recognized apprenticeships,” but the program never really got off the ground.
Now comes the Biden Administration, walking into America’s shaky workforce-training house somewhat like Goldilocks. While building mostly on Obama’s efforts, Biden has drawn from both former presidents’ approaches to create a middle ground that, he hopes, feels just right. Biden’s apprenticeship goals are aimed squarely at his “Build Back Better” dreams of replacing America’s aging infrastructure, dirty energy systems, declining manufacturing centers, and the like. His administration hopes to get there by offering a variety of tax credits and support from quasi-governmental organizations to a number of players in this challenge, primarily technical schools, trade unions, and industry. This approach is meant to create a new, more robust set of workplace apprenticeship programs that, as NSC’s Spiker described it, go “back to the basics.”
Those basics, it should be noted, draw from the National Apprenticeship Act—a four-paragraph piece of legislation enacted in 1937 that has changed only once since then, in 1973. Maybe it’s time for another upgrade.