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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.

We Americans have painted ourselves into an odd 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 have created an untenable situation: 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.

By now, the statistics making this case abound. Student loans were started, with the best of intentions, in the 1950s with the famous post-war G.I. bill. The goal, of course, was to help more of America’s young people reap the benefits of a college education; in the decades afterward, an ever-greater number of students enrolled in college, thanks to those loans, and “vocational education” declined. Eventually, having a college degree was no longer special; and its cost had become astronomical—thanks to a tripling in the cost of tuitions just between 1980 and 2013.

In response, students sought even higher degrees, causing an escalation in student debt. In 2013, in fact, student loan debt across the U.S. topped $1 billion for the first time, and it has risen only higher since. Today, the average debt for students who took out loans is $25,000 (which must be repaid at a staggering 6.8% interest rate). It’s estimated that 40 percent of this total was racked up in the pursuit of graduate degrees.

Have such heavy investments paid off? Apparently not. “Over half of all recent graduates are either unemployed or jobless,” reports the website, 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 Wal-Mart, according to a recent survey of 4 Million profiles on Facebook.” Echoing these findings, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 37% of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a high school degree is required.

It seems that we have 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.

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 three to five 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 speak, is not getting lost on a growing number of the younger generations. Enrollment in trade schools has been skyrocketing. 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 health care 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.

For those who want to design or supervise some of these projects instead of just building them, 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, 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.” “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.


This is not to suggest the path to excellence through apprenticeships is wide open, or rosy. Pitfalls abound (well documented by a series of articles in The Atlantic). One of the biggest pitfalls 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.

Other countries that have a more extensive apprenticeship system than the U.S. have found a variety of ways to avoid this sorry outcome. Germany is perhaps the most often cited example. German apprentices cannot move on without special certifications; if they quit, they don’t get their certifications, or a job. Americans, however, have shown little interest in such a strict process of advancement, and that gives a number of experts great pause when politicians (like President Trump) float ambitious plans to expand apprenticeships here.

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. They don’t know the kids, and the sense of meaning and fulfillment that kids today are looking for.”

Todd Oppenheimer is the editor & publisher of Craftsmanship Quarterly

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