Could Apprenticeships Be An Alternative To College?

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The unemployment rate for 20 to 24-year-olds is now 12.7 percent. For 16 to 19-year-olds who want to work, it’s 23.5 percent. Could an apprenticeship be the answer for some of these young people?

On the public radio program “Tell Me More,” host Michel Martin interviewed Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute and a professor of economics at American University. Here’s part of their very interesting conversation:

MARTIN: When people hear the word apprenticeship, I think maybe people think about swinging an anvil in a blacksmith’s shop or something that has nothing to do with the modern era. So what is an apprenticeship?

LERMAN: An apprenticeship is a structured program of work-based learning and classroom-based instruction that leads to certification in an occupation, and it involves a high level of skill demands and it covers many occupations, depending on the country. In our country, we focus more on the skilled trades in construction and in manufacturing, but it can work in many other fields.

MARTIN: You argue that bringing apprenticeships back could do something to cut the very significant unemployment rate among younger workers, potential workers. Why would that be the case? How would this help the situation? Because I think the common understanding is that the reason that the unemployment rate is high is that just the jobs don’t exist.

LERMAN: In terms of long-term career development, as well as short term jobs, apprenticeship could play a significant role. We’re seeing manufacturers and others claim that they have a skills shortage, and on the one hand we have this high youth unemployment rate.

How can we deal with that? Well, some people say community colleges, but it’s better if the employer actually hires the person as an apprentice. They’re doing real work. They’re learning on the job under a mentor. It’s not in some massive institution where there might be one advisor for every 1,000 students. They know exactly what they need to take and when they take a course, they can see its application very directly to what they’re doing on the job.

MARTIN: You were saying earlier that you think that part of the reason that apprenticeships have a fairly  narrow life in the United States is in part we’re focused on college. We’re focused on college and community college as kind of the be-all way to have opportunity in this country. But is part of it, though, that the idea that apprenticeships kind of steer you at a very young age, in a very specific direction, and then you can’t get out of it? I mean, if you’re trained to do a certain kind of work, that’s the only work you’re really trained to do. So could you speak to that?

LERMAN: What are these young people going to do otherwise? That’s the real question, and I think in an apprenticeship young people learn how to learn. They gain a sense of pride that they’ve been able to master a whole occupational area. And remember, they’re taking relevant classes, so they’re upgrading their math skills, but it’s math skills that they’re really going to use. Many times people take courses and they may do OK on the exam and three years later they don’t remember anything. But if you use it on a daily basis or at least on a weekly basis, you’re much more likely to retain it and then grow with it.

MARTIN: One of the objections that people might have to your idea is the same objection that a lot of people have about vocational education, which used to be a lot more popular in the United States than it is now. And it fell out of favor, in part because a lot of people started to believe that vocational education was just a trap for black and brown kids, or kids who aren’t wealthy.

LERMAN: If you look at African-American males, we have about 15, 16 percent of them getting BA degrees.
I’m in favor of more getting BA degrees. Let’s double it. Let’s say we were able to go from 16 percent to 32 percent. That would be a lot of work, but what about the other 68 percent? Shouldn’t we have space for people who like to learn by doing, who like to combine classroom activity with real employability at the workplace and skill development at the workplace? I think we need both.”

I like this segment because Martin and Lerman are addressing head-on some of the potential dangers of apprenticeship programs (that they will become a second-class program to which minority students are shunted), and also some of the real advantages in terms of how people learn. Lerman’s observation that if you youse what you learn “on a daily basis or at least on a weekly basis, you’re much more likely to retain it and then grow with it,” is especially acute.

What do you think? Should apprenticeships be an alternative to college for some young people?


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2 Responses to “Could Apprenticeships Be An Alternative To College?”

  1. YES. Learning tailored to the learner is the new normal. The idea of a standard education prescription is obsolete.

    Thanks for bringing these ‘alternative’ ideas for education and learning into wider awareness. Kids learn and mature at differing rates. Higher ed is seriously broken!

    You are probably familiar with John Taylor Gatto’s ideas. This post is in alignment with those. Here is his book Annie, in case some of your readers are not familiar with him: http://www.amazon.com/Dumbing-Down-Curriculum-Compulsory-Anniversary/dp/0865714487

  2. I sometimes really feel that the time students spend in college is really wasted, when they could be getting some real experience in an apprenticeship program. We could earn while we learn. Nothing could be better than that.

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