If you hear the word “apprentice,” you may well think of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” television show, where he famously told people they were fired, or have a flashback to learning in school about “apprenticeships” in the Middle Ages, when young people would learn a trade at the foot of skilled craftsmen (while providing virtually free labor for years).
Well, apprenticeships never died. In Germany today, for example, 60 percent of high school students spend half of their school time doing academic work and the other half getting hands-on training at a company. Other countries, too, have successful apprenticeship programs that successfully keep young people working.
In the United States, where the focus for years has been getting more people to graduate from college, less than 5 percent of young people train as apprentices. But there is new interest among policymakers in raising that number significantly. President Trump recently embraced the idea of creating millions of apprenticeships over the next five years.
Here’s more on this subject from Jonathan Hasak, a director of public policy and government affairs at Year Up, a national nonprofit that connects low-income young adults with livable-wage careers. It is one of a number of organizations in that space, including YouthBuild, which works with unemployed young people around the world who dropped out of high school to gain skills they need for employment.
By Jonathan Hasak
An interesting thing happened at the White House recently when Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff attended a roundtable discussion on vocational training with U.S. and German business leaders. President Trump left that meeting and embraced Benioff’s moonshot goal of creating 5 million apprenticeships within five years, winning praise from advocates who believe that a four-year college should not be the only pathway to a good job in this country.
But with only 505,000 apprentices currently enrolled in Labor Department-registered programs, getting to 5 million apprenticeships will require a level of commitment and investment from America’s C-suites that has been largely absent. Consider that in 2014, then-President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to call on employers to double the number of apprenticeships at the time to 750,000 by 2019.
Still, any commitment from the White House that helps Americans gain skills that have real currency in today’s labor market should be applauded. But instead of focusing solely on apprenticeships — an employer-led, driven, and funded model — the Trump administration and corporate leaders like Benioff ought to reframe their moonshot goal and embrace a spectrum of work-based education programs that provide a hand up to Americans who are out of work, out of school, and lacking opportunities to gain stable employment.
All Americans deserve on-ramps to good jobs and apprenticeships can certainly help. Many apprenticeship advocates often point to the successful German model, which has students spending half of the school week getting paid by company training and the other half in related academic work. What is perhaps most compelling about German apprenticeships is that they were not created as placeholders for non-college bound youth. Rather, they are popular alternative pathways for job readiness and postsecondary education.
But in its current form, the American apprenticeship system is too small, too exclusive, and poorly targeted. And despite bipartisan support for apprenticeships, they are available in only a narrow range of occupations, predominately in the building trade and manufacturing industries. As a result, there is low employer demand for apprenticeships, with more companies using cost-effective programs that look like apprenticeships.
Year Up, for example, is a national organization that has spent the past 16 years connecting low-income young adults with livable-wage careers in high-growth industries in a single year. It’s mission is to close the mismatches in the youth labor market, also known as the Opportunity Divide, and to date, it has served more than 16,000 students and helped develop custom training solution to meet the specific needs of over 250 corporate partners.
Given that the federal government has spent $2.4 billion annually in training Opportunity Youth — the approximate 5.5 million young adults in this country who are out of work and out of school — with limited labor market outcomes, Year Up’s success should not be overlooked. Students intern at top companies across the country, such as JPMorgan Chase, Salesforce, and American Express, and 85 percent of graduates are employed or attending college full time within four months of completing the year-long program at starting salaries averaging $36,000 a year.
Year Up’s success can provide two important lessons for any vocational training initiative that ends up coming out of the White House.
First, a demand-driven approach is critical for expanding access to opportunity. This requires mobilizing employers to help correct education, workforce, and apprenticeship systems that have failed to provide young adults the skills they need for success in life by making them more responsive to jobs employers are actually creating. Year Up does this through a campaign called Grads of Life, a national initiative focused on helping employers build and strengthen their talent pipelines. It would not be hard to imagine a similar type of campaign led by the White House and corporate leaders such as Marc Benioff that targets corporate social responsibility offices and tries to convince employers to make longer-term commitments to training.
Second, reformers should connect apprenticeships and other work-based education program to our existing education systems — something Year Up has been doing through its partnerships with community colleges. Even for Opportunity Youth who are disengaged from school, the easiest place to find a training provider or an apprenticeship is often at schools. And so more integration of work-based education programs to existing secondary and postsecondary systems — infrastructure with substantial investments in work-based learning — would make it easier to improve career pathways offered to students.
Trump is an expert at branding — and creating 5 million apprenticeships from the former Apprentice himself has a certain ring to it. But retraining and upskilling millions of Americans will require offering up a spectrum of work-based education programs. Call it what you will. But it’s going to take more than just apprenticeships.