You don’t have to be a cynic to doubt that many of these grand reforms will ever come to pass or to suspect that if they do, they will fail to match the extravagant expectations that they have created. In this sense, they will not only fall short in meeting their goals but will also contribute to another large social problem: the public’s disillusionment with government as a constructive agency for the common good.
Conspicuously missing are smaller proposals with more modest objectives that actually have a chance of succeeding — and that, if they don’t succeed, can be curtailed without becoming a permanent burden on government. They won’t be protected by powerful interest groups. Meanwhile, the mega-proposals with their mega-promises endure, because they fit candidates’ political need to look thoughtful, compassionate and powerful.
Apprenticeship is one such smaller proposal. Although it is heavily used by some European countries (Germany, Switzerland and Austria), it is not common in the United States. In 2016, there were an estimated 505,000 people in apprenticeship programs registered with the Labor Department. About 70 to 80 percent are in construction, reports economist Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, a leading expert on apprenticeships. That’s small potatoes compared with a U.S. labor force exceeding 160 million.
Still, things are changing. According to Lerman, President Barack Obama and President Trump have both supported apprenticeships, as have a number of governors of both parties. It is loosely overseen by the Labor Department. Typically, apprenticeships combine classroom study and on-the-job training. Student/workers are paid. The programs usually last a few years. Companies seek skilled and stable workforces; workers hope higher skills will translate into higher pay.
There’s a larger issue at stake: youth joblessness. Lerman cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — basically, affluent societies — showing that only 42 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds were employed in 2018. In the United States, many jobless men constitute “large and expanding subcultures … who have been shoved to the sidelines or have chosen to disengage from many of the traditional responsibilities of American manhood,” as Andrew L. Yarrow writes in “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.”
Lerman argues that apprenticeships represent an underutilized way to reach these alienated young men, who (according to Yarrow’s excellent study) consist disproportionately of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans. These are “people who don’t do well in the academic realm — they’re bright but bored,” says Lerman.
Traditionally, American businesses have been skeptical. They’ve shied away from apprenticeships for fear that the upfront costs — for salaries and instructional expenses — will be wasted. Once workers have new skills, they will quit and look elsewhere for better jobs. Companies will pay for their training but get little or no benefit.
Although this is a reasonable objection, it may be outdated. Lerman reviewed studies and found that many companies received sizable benefits. “Generally, the first year … involves significant costs, but subsequently, the apprentice’s contributions exceed his/her wages and supervisory costs,” he writes. Similarly, many workers were reluctant to leave the companies where they had been apprentices; they valued the job security and firm-specific skills they had acquired.
Remember, the point of all this is not to promote apprenticeships as the obvious solution to the employment problems of young men. It’s one possible solution. It’s something we should try, because it might work. We ought to allow firms a lot of flexibility and freedom in running their programs, both because the needs of firms and industries vary and because some companies will do better than others. Government subsidies, if any, should be small.
The point is that this is the kind of quiet experimentation that we ought to encourage — and abandon if it doesn’t work. But these sorts of proposals don’t play much of a role in presidential campaigns, where candidates are peddling big-picture solutions to big-picture problems that are not easily corrected under the best of circumstances.
This is one reason the gap between government’s promise and performance is so large — and why Americans expect more from their government than it can possibly deliver.