The Apprenticeship Alternative:

Work-based learning takes hold in high schools from Georgia to Wisconsin, but creating appeal and committing resources for growth remain challenging

The Apprenticeship Alternative
Jaime Johnson, a senior at Jackson County Comprehensive High School in Jefferson, Ga., holds an apprenticeship at Galilee Veterinary Hospital, where she has learned techniques for drawing medication from a vial for injections.

While many of his former high school classmates are starting their work lives knee-deep in college debt, 23-year-old Justin Wilson is debt-free and earning a good living as a mechanic at Pratt & Whitney’s jet engine plant in Columbus, Ga.

He plans to start working toward a college degree soon, but he still won’t accumulate any debt. As long as he stays at Pratt & Whitney, the company will pay for his education.

Wilson is among relatively few Americans who were able to begin an apprenticeship in high school. He began working 19 hours a week at the Columbus plant during his senior year through a partnership between the Muscogee County School District, Columbus Technical College and Pratt & Whitney.

After graduating from high school, he went to work full-time at the plant, and he’s been there ever since.

“I’m glad I did it,” he says. “They’re a good company, you get the good benefits and they’ll pay for college. Those are kind of big factors.”

Quest for Skills

Indeed, college debt in America exceeds $1 trillion and has surpassed credit card debt, according to a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, “Training for Success: A Policy to Expand Apprenticeships in the United States.” The average debt faced by 2011 college graduates was $26,600, according to the report, making it one of the biggest obstacles facing young people as they attempt to gain traction in a tough economy.

At the same time, many companies are searching for workers with the requisite skills — both hard and soft — to become successful long-term employees.

Yet apprenticeships for young people — common in Germany, Switzerland and other European nations — are a rarity in the United States. The “Training for Success” report says the United States had 358,000 active registered apprenticeships in 2012, only 7 percent of those in England, when controlling for population size.

Some states, school districts and individual educators are working to change that. They see youth apprenticeships, beginning as early as the junior year of high school, as a key part of the future of work-based learning in America. They include Don Blair, a mechatronics teacher in the Berkeley County schools near Charleston, S.C., who placed three students in apprenticeships this year in a fledgling program in his district.

“It looks like this should grow like a weed,” he says. “I don’t see why we can’t put at least half our students out there in an apprentice situation.”

Starting Modestly

That looks like a very tall order at the moment. Berkeley County is one of four districts in a recently formed partnership with nearby Trident Technical College, several Charleston-area companies and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Only 13 students are participating this year out of thousands in the area, although many more are enrolled in other work-based learning programs.

The youth apprentices get $10 an hour to work two afternoons a week at local manufacturers and spend three afternoons a week taking dual-certification technical courses at Trident. The work eventually earns them a journeyman certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor, making them employable across the country.

A couple of hours away in Aiken County, S.C., near the Georgia border, about a dozen high school juniors and seniors per year apprentice at the MTU Aiken Plant, part of a Germany-based manufacturer of large diesel engines. Students are paid to work several hours a week in different parts of the plant while taking both traditional academic courses at their high schools and a certified manufacturing course. They work full time at MTU during the summer.

By the time the students graduate from high school they should have 1,000 hours of work experience and 600 hours of instruction in machining and mechatronics. They will earn an industrial mechanic apprenticeship certificate and may be offered a full-time job at MTU starting at about $35,000 a year, says Brooks Smith, who directed the career center in Aiken County’s schools before moving on to become career and technology education director in the Greenville County schools.

South Carolina’s Technical College System is helping smooth the way in districts across the state. In 2007 the state created Apprenticeship Carolina, which helps connect high schools, technical colleges and companies looking to develop young workers. Companies get a $1,000 tax credit for each apprentice they employ.

Read More:

Apprenticeships for Youth Development, Career Prep

by Robert I. Lerman

Companies Step Up

Much of the impetus for school district programs is coming from local manufacturers — especially those familiar with the European apprenticeship model. The Aiken County program began after MTU approached the school district in search of a pipeline of dependable, well-trained workers.

The same is true of Pratt & Whitney, which approached Georgia’s Muscogee County district six years ago and hammered out an agreement. Seniors earn $11.32 an hour working in the plant after school while taking a certified manufacturing course at Columbus Tech. They rotate throughout the plant, working different stations and learning different skills — and being rated and assessed along the way.

“It’s like a five-month job interview,” says Tim Vinson, the work-based learning coordinator in the 32,000-student Muscogee district, who calls the Pratt & Whitney program the “gold standard” among such efforts.

The company selects teenagers for full-time employment, and they go to work directly after high school graduation. Students then can take free classes provided by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on the Pratt & Whitney campus — or courses in any subject at any other area college.

So far, more than 60 students have gone through the program, and 27 are now permanent employees at the local plant, Vinson says.

Still, the number of apprenticeships remains extremely small, both in Muscogee County and across the state. Dwayne Hobbs, manager of career, technical and agricultural education for the Georgia Department of Education, says 7,000 students statewide, or about 3.5 percent of those eligible, are in apprenticeships.

Barriers to Growth

A major challenge in expanding the programs lies in school funding, Hobbs says. Apprenticeships require a lot of planning and supervision at the school level, and schools can’t afford many of those positions.

“I think there are more kids who need to do it and want to do it,” he says. “We have to find a way to fund the personnel to monitor it, manage it and supervise those students.”

A related factor, Vinson says, is finding students who are willing to commit and capable of following through on that commitment — including finding their own transportation to and from the job sites. Muscogee educators are extremely careful in selecting students for apprenticeships because the district wants to sustain the program at a high level.

“What it does to me is it puts more pressure on the education side to go find those good students,” he says.

Vinson credits his school district with providing the substantial financial and administrative support required to launch and sustain apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs. The Muscogee County district doubled the number of administrators working on its programs this year, from two to four. The new staff recruit businesses willing to participate, market the programs to students and parents, create training agreements with participating companies, visit the work sites to ensure they are providing a positive and safe learning opportunity for students, and maintain data to track the effectiveness of the programs. Meanwhile, they monitor each student’s attendance, work ethic and job performance.

“There’s a tremendous amount of action going on,” Vinson says. “It’s a full-time job for four of us right now just to manage what we have.” Like many new educational ventures, apprenticeship programs suffer when money gets tight, and programs across the country took a hit with the 2008 economic downturn. Wisconsin state officials say they have focused over the last few years on reinvigorating their program and other work-based opportunities. From a low of about 1,200 youth apprentices during the downturn, the state boosted the number to 2,539 in 2013-14.

Another 950 students are involved in a new grant program called Wisconsin Fast Forward that helps schools, colleges and companies provide students with certification training and work opportunities short of formal apprenticeships. State officials have pledged this year to ease the transition from such programs into adult-registered apprenticeships.

“What we’re seeing in the past couple of years is that demand from employers is stepping up,” says Scott Jansen, administrator of the Division of Employment and Training in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

But Wisconsin, too, sees a need for more trained personnel in schools to support the workplace training. “We don’t have an abundance of certified technical educators sitting on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity to get into classrooms,” Jansen says.

‘A Little Swagger’

A less visible barrier to the growth of youth apprenticeships is the pervasive notion that all American students should go directly from high school to college, says Smith, the career and technology director in the Greenville County schools.

“Our push and focus for the last 25 years has been increasingly that all students are going to college, which means that we’ve completely let these kinds of opportunities go by the wayside,” he says. “It’s not that it’s a new idea, it’s kind of an idea that was steamrolled over with the notion that these types of training are lesser than and not as good as a four-year college.”

He sees an uphill battle with that college-first push. “I’m competing against two-year and four-year colleges that have a marketing budget and billboards up,” he says.

How does one create appeal for blue-collar training? “The theme I want to go to is it’s all about the money: ‘I’m going to go learn to weld because I’m going to make more money than you.’ It’s like bringing a little swagger to those who are getting vocational training.”

A public awareness campaign to that effect worked in England, prompting a “dramatic uptick” in apprenticeships, according to the Center for American Progress report.

But as many of the advocates note, apprenticeships aren’t just about blue-collar jobs, and educators are trying to promote that notion, too. Youth apprenticeships in states like South Carolina and Wisconsin are available in accounting, bioscience and web and digital media as well as in construction and other trades.

Cathy Crary, director of youth apprenticeships for Wisconsin’s Division of Employment Training, says the idea that apprenticeships are another way of “tracking” less academically oriented students is way off base. She says students become more interested in higher education during their apprenticeships. As they work with on-the-job mentors, they realize they will need some form of higher education to land a good-paying job.

“It’s expanding their horizon, not limiting it,” she says. “I don’t think it tracks anybody. I think what it does for the first time is give them choices.”  

Paul Riede is a journalism instructor at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y. E-mail: Twitter: @PaulRiede


Additional Resources

Informational materials and sources on youth apprenticeships:



Expanding ApprenticeshipOpportunities in the United States” by Robert I. Lerman, Brookings Institution

Training for Success” report on apprenticeships, Center for American Progress

The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence by Robert Halpern, 2008, Routledge, New York, N.Y.

Schooling in the Workplace by Nancy Hoffman, 2011, Harvard Educational Press, Cambridge, Mass.


State Apprenticeship Websites:

Apprenticeship Carolina (state-based youth apprenticeships in South Carolina)

Georgia Youth Apprenticeship

Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship