The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why are apprenticeships a good idea that have never really taken off in the U.S.?

Workers inspect a pane of glass at a plant in Moraine, Ohio. (John Minchillo/AP)

When President Trump signed an executive order earlier this year to substantially increase apprenticeships in the United States, he joined a line of recent presidents who have tried to reimagine job training as something that happens on the job instead of mostly in a classroom.

Despite this focus at the highest levels of government, apprenticeships have never caught on in the United States compared to many European countries. Today, American apprenticeships remain largely associated with the construction trades and labor unions, where they had their roots in a Depression-era labor shortage that led Congress to pass formalized standards and empowered the Labor Department to certify training.

Last year, about 500,000 apprentices were listed with 21,000 programs on the Department of Labor’s registry. While that’s up from fewer than 400,000 just four years ago, it’s still far short of demand and pales in comparison to the 2 million new students who enroll in community colleges every year.

Apprenticeships are receiving renewed attention partly because the primary pathway into the job market — the college degree — has led some graduates to struggle in finding work and facing large amounts of student-loan debt. Some 91 percent of apprentices find employment after completing their programs, with a starting pay of more than $51,000 annually. What’s more, most of them leave their programs without any debt, compared to the average college graduate last year who borrowed to finance their education and left campus $37,000 in the hole.

“What most people don’t understand is that apprenticeships are like college but without the debt,” said Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the Washington state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, at a panel discussion on apprenticeships that I moderated earlier this month at the think tank New America. “In most cases, apprentices still earn college credits and degrees, and then end up in good jobs.”

The reasons why fewer than 2 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in this country are enrolled in apprenticeships are varied and complex, and, unfortunately, many can’t be easily fixed with executive orders from the White House.

The biggest issue is cultural: The “college-for-all” movement in the United States over the last four decades has pushed many youth to campuses even when they weren’t ready or didn’t want to follow that well-trod pathway.

Take Michael Shinn, whom I met in North Carolina while reporting my book on the difficult transition today’s youth face in this job market. Michael had good grades in high school, especially in math, and had completed several AP courses. So his high school counselor encouraged him to follow the college route, and he had plans to major in engineering at North Carolina State University. In the spring of his junior year, however, he noticed a sign for an apprenticeship program run by local manufacturers.

Shinn went to the presentation the following week, although he told me he was discouraged from doing so by his counselor. “He told me I was college-going material and this wasn’t for me,” Shinn recalled. What he heard at the presentation surprised him. The companies were nothing like the blue-collar, assembly-line jobs his generation associates with factory work. These were advanced operations with a desperate need for workers who could actually think, and not just make widgets. The best part was they would pay him to work and go to school, and they guaranteed a job after the four-year apprenticeship. He signed up.

When I caught up with him a few years after his apprenticeship ended, he had already completed an associate’s degree at a nearby community college, paid for by Ameritech Die & Mold, where he started work making custom tools at $35,000 a year. Meanwhile, he told me his wife, who had recently completed her MBA, was finding the job market difficult. “Teachers and guidance counselors only talk about college as the way to a good life,” he told me. “I wish more of them could see what I do every day. I don’t have a mindless manufacturing job.”

Programs like the one Shinn completed in North Carolina have perhaps the best chance at success because they work with local employers and the skills they need in a region. Indeed, it is states, and not the federal government, that have been the leader in building apprenticeships in recent years.

The biggest effort of this kind is in Colorado, where Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to make apprenticeships as common as going to college. Backed by nearly $10 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies and JPMorgan Chase, Colorado has started offering hands-on training, beginning in high school, in financial services, information technology, health care and manufacturing. The goal is to make the program available to some 20,000 students within the next decade.

In its report on apprenticeships earlier this month, New America suggested several ways the federal government could be supportive of state efforts, including better connecting the higher education system and apprenticeships, and allowing federal work-study funds to cover tuition and fees of student apprentices.

It’s unclear whether apprenticeships will ever become as ubiquitous as college in the United States or as they are in Europe, where it’s not unusual to find top executives of companies who started as apprentices. But there can’t just be one pathway into good-paying jobs from high school in the United States, because as recent history shows us, that pathway is littered with students who never complete a degree and others who graduate with too much debt and little prospect for gainful employment.