In the Middle Ages, Europe trained workers through an apprenticeship system. A youth trained in the establishment of a master craftsman, gradually learning the work and passing through various stages until he too might become a master craftsman.
That system has disappeared, but its legacy is a relatively small number of craft union programs in the United States and in a more widespread apprenticeship system in West Germany, according to American University economics department chairman Robert Lerman.
"The German experience offers the most striking demonstration of the success of the apprenticeship model. In Germany's dynamic, high-growth economy, about 70 percent of young people enter the job market through the apprenticeship system," write Lerman and Hillard Pouncy of Brandeis University in a paper for the Progressive Policy Institute.
"German executives attribute much of their business success to their sophisticated work force, trained largely under the apprenticeship system," Lerman says.
If adopted in the United States on a large scale, Lerman and Pouncy contend, an apprenticeship program modeled on that of West Germany would offer hope and decent jobs to the "forgotten half" of American youth -- the half that doesn't go to college -- while improving the quality of the labor force and the nation's productivity and competitiveness.
Such a program should combine intensive on-the-job training (perhaps with a training wage below market rate or below minimum wage in some cases) with academic work in the disciplines needed to perform the jobs, the authors say.
In the United States, Lerman and Pouncy assert, "The capabilities of the work force, especially non-college workers, are not keeping up with the rising demand for skilled labor. As a result, U.S. productivity and wage growth remain low, while the gap widens between the earnings of college and non-college workers."
One of the biggest problems is education, they say. High school students are studying far less than needed to develop skills needed for the labor force -- 3.5 hours a week of homework compared with 25 hours a week of television.
But even more important is that in current vocational educational programs, there is a serious "mismatch between the students' course of study and their subsequent jobs. Less than 3 of 10 vocational education students work on jobs using the skills from their school programs."
The authors contend that a serious, large-scale apprenticeship program could induce students to study harder because they would be more certain of obtaining a good job once they finished the program.
Lerman and Pouncy envision a program working like this:In grades seven through nine, students would learn about possible occupations though school courses, site visits, job sampling and employer visits to schools. In ninth grade, a student would decide whether to stick to an academic program or sign up for an apprenticeship program. By the end of the academic year, the student would sign an agreement with an employer to participate in the employer's apprenticeship program. In grades 11 through 12 the student would mix on-the-job training with high-school courses providing the academic skills needed on the job. For example, bank trainees would learn math, use of calculating machines, bank systems and laws governing banks. The mix would start at 70 percent academic and 30 percent on-the-job training but by late in the 12th grade it would be 75 percent on-the-job training. After finishing high school the student would spend 75 percent of his or her time at work, but use community colleges to gain supplementary skills and knowledge.
Based on West Germany's experience, Lerman and Pouncy believe a large-scale apprenticeship program will have highly beneficial effects for the general run of non-college youth as well as on labor productivity.
As word of good jobs and secure futures begins to filter through communities, they say, "It is conceivable that a large, effective youth apprenticeship program will help bring today's urban underclass into the mainstream of economic and social life. Large impacts could take place quickly, since the program will primarily benefit non-college youth, the group that accounts for most neighborhood crimes and a large part of the drug problem."