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For most people, attending college pays off in big ways: lifelong friendships, invaluable mentorships and better earning potential. However, not everyone wants to go to college, and not all jobs require the completion of a degree.
On-the-job training is declining in the U.S., even though people without college degrees could be trained onsite to perform many needed and good-paying jobs. Between 2003 and 2013, formal apprenticeships in the U.S. declined by 40 percent even as CEOs and hiring managers bemoaned the shortage of skilled employees.
To fill in America’s skills gaps, policymakers should incentivize companies to revive the apprenticeship model. Some states have implemented successful apprenticeship incentives, and both business and labor have benefited from these policies.
Apprenticeship:A Brief History
Apprenticeship was first mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which stipulated that artisans should teach their crafts to Babylonian youth. The practice prospered in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece and continued well into the 1600s in other parts of Europe. By the time the English brought apprenticeship to America, apprentices started at age 14 and received food, housing and clothing from their masters.
Although many apprenticeships occur in traditionally blue-collar professions, like construction or other trades, they work well for other occupations such as nursing assistant or computer technician. Most apprentices today are between 18 and 24, and although they work alongside their “masters” and earn wages, they don’t depend on their masters for their basic needs. Most apprentices work a certain number of hours per week as outlined by their apprenticeship agreements, learning specific skills and earning specific wages for each hour worked. After the apprenticeship has ended, they receive a certificate indicating that they’ve completed their training.
Why Apprenticeship Has Declined in the U.S.
Corporations shy away from apprenticeships because they fear unionization, and they worry that they’ll train apprentices only to see them leave for other companies. American parents also steer students toward higher education rather than on-the-job training even when on-the-job preparation might be the right alternative. Students in public policy graduate programs, including American University’s online MPAP program, are starting to study ways that innovative state programs have encouraged apprenticeship.
South Carolina’s Apprenticeship Carolina (AC) program, for example, pays businesses a $1,000 tax credit to train apprentices and employ them for at least seven months out of the year. The state encourages apprenticeship for industries including construction, manufacturing, healthcare, energy, IT, transportation, logistics and tourism. Eligible companies can access Workforce Investment Area (WIA) funds to offset instruction, training and wages costs for apprentices. So far, AC has served over 10,000 apprentices in South Carolina. South Carolina’s technical colleges also work closely with companies and apprentices to deliver vocational training.
Unfair Stigma Toward Vocational Training
In Germany, nearly half of all upper secondary students are in vocational training, and half of those students complete apprenticeships. Apprenticeships start at 15 to 16, and after three to four years, apprentices are almost guaranteed a job. Germany has so many open apprenticeship spots that it can’t fill them all, even though anyone in the EU can apply for an apprenticeship in Germany.
In the U.S., however, vocational training is virtually neglected. Young workers, which make up 13 percent of America’s workforce, account for 26 percent of America’s unemployment numbers. Overall, one in five young workers is unemployed, and what economists call the “middle skills” gap has a lot to do with youth unemployment.
In many parts of America, vo-tech classes in high schools are viewed as a place for second-rate students instead of as skill-building training centers for good-paying jobs. South Carolina has turned this notion on its head. The Pickens County school district, for instance, which runs a state-of-the-art Career & Technical center, offers application-only “Technician Scholars” placements, which lend prestige to more on-the-job-oriented training programs.
Robert Lerman, a Professor of Economics at American University, says that Americans must recognize that not every young person needs or wants to go to college. “College-for-everyone is not only costly for families and taxpayers but also weakens the career prospects of young people who prefer learning by doing,” he wrote in an August 2013 article for PBS NewsHour. Apprenticeships, which can add as much as $250,000 to a person’s lifetime earnings, could be a key both to resolving America’s economic woes and to strengthening America’s middle class.