Monday, November 19, 2012

Is the US ready for apprenticeship?

Not everyone is made for university, and good jobs do not require university education. Hence, I have a hard time understanding this general urge to increase the share of the college-educated population higher and higher. The example of the United States is telling, where many students leave the university with high debt and have to go for jobs that have nothing to do with their training. Possibly a better is the one of Germany, where many good jobs can be attained through apprenticeships: instead of US-style high school, students go part-time to a trade school part-time while holding an apprentice job training them toward a particular trade. This allows to combine classroom fundamentals with practice. Such apprentices become bank tellers, elementary school teachers, nurses or plumbers.

Could this work in the United States? Robert Lerman claims that discussion about reducing youth unemployment has been too focused on increasing college education, at great cost and little effectiveness, instead at looking at policies abroad. Yet, apprenticeship seems to go well with American values of pragmatism and the blending of private work into education. So why does this take a significant foothold? One reason is that American do not think it is a good idea to take crucial decisions about careers too early, and they may have a point as the usually higher unemployment rate in Europe has been attributed in part to a lack of flexibility of the workforce. But the more important reasons are that existing vocational high schools are considered a dumping ground for the academically challenged and parents resist sending their children there. Also, for-profit career colleges, which have no practical training aspect, are making very good money avoiding the apprenticeship system. Community colleges also provide mostly academic training and are no good substitute to apprenticeship. Also, unions seems to be acting like gatekeepers to their trades and actively prevent the creation of apprenticeship programs, likely to keep wages high.

As so often in the US, it comes down to lobbying. Lerman seems to see good perspectives in public subsidies for apprenticeship positions in businesses, I think public funds would be better used by not providing student loans to for-profit trade schools that provide little value. Use the savings to provide more trade and practice based programs in community colleges. And it is not clear why unions should have a say in the certification of an apprenticeship program.

1 comment:

  1. Correction: Here in Germany, you need to finish a university degree to become an elementary school teacher.


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