Apprenticeships for Youth Development, Career Prep

What if I told you that a U.S. public-private initiative could reduce youth unemployment, improve the transition from school to careers, upgrade skills, raise wages of young adults, strengthen a young worker’s identity, increase U.S. productivity, achieve positive returns for employers and workers and reduce government spending?

It’s not some pie-in-the-sky scheme, but a feasible initiative that addresses learning, employability skills, occupational skills and jobs. Most important, it works.

The “it” is expanding apprenticeship training, starting in late high school and extending to some postsecondary training. The goal is to make apprenticeship a mainstream alternative for young people and a common method of recruitment and training by employers.

Interest in youth apprenticeship peaked in the early 1990s, but the Clinton administration’s School-to-Work Opportunities Act ended up weakening the youth apprenticeship movement. Now, the idea is coming back, encouraged by the Obama administration’s announcement making $100 million available to promote American apprenticeships.

Overseas Advances

Apprenticeships are structured combinations of work-based learning, productive contributions in the workplace (with wages) and related academic instruction, all leading to mastering an occupation and attaining valued credentials.

This dual approach to preparing youth for careers is widely used, but most advanced in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where 50 to 70 percent of young people take up apprenticeships. These countries have the lowest youth unemployment rates and the smoothest school-to-career transitions among all advanced economies. The Swiss model is especially noteworthy for its ability to make seamless transitions from apprenticeship into university studies.

Apprenticeships beginning during the high school years can play a positive role in helping young people develop independence, pride and self-confidence through their ability to perform difficult tasks. Apprentices learn through observation, imitation, trial and error and reiteration. Apprenticeships allow youth to explore new areas in a structured environment. They offer a way of involving constructive adults that makes sense to young people. Supervisors’ monitoring helps apprentices keep their focus on performing well at work and in the classroom. Unlike high school students in typical part-time jobs, apprentices integrate what they learn on the job with what they learn in the classroom and typically improve their academic as well as workplace skills.

Employers bear most of the training costs, but most recoup their investments when the value added by apprentices exceeds their wages, particularly when you count savings in recruitment and training of skilled workers. By changing the way firms recruit and train workers, a stimulus to employer investments sets off a long-term flow of employer-led training that lessens government burdens to pay for full-time college and training programs.

While U.S. apprenticeships currently are concentrated in construction and manufacturing occupations, in many countries they cover a wide range of jobs, from chefs and computer network administrators to bakers, commercial sales representatives and health technicians. (See American Institute for Innovative Apprenticeship at innovativeapprenticeship.org.) Moreover, several countries have managed to expand their programs dramatically. Apprenticeships have tripled in Australia since 1996 and have quadrupled to more than 700,000 in England since 2006.

The government costs for apprenticeship training are quite low because most of the investment comes from the company offering the apprenticeship. Still, modest sums are necessary to jump-start the system. As part of the guidance function, school districts could finance employer liaisons to develop, promote and oversee youth apprenticeships and participate in establishing state standards for certification of occupational competence. Certainly, funding from the state, local or voluntary sector is required for marketing and for technical assistance to help firms set up and maintain apprenticeship slots.

A Program Launch

Implementing youth apprenticeship at the state and local levels is challenging but rewarding. The first step is for states to form and fund a branch of a department with the sole responsibility for building the program. The branch should include individuals with sales and marketing experience who can serve as consultants on workforce issues and who are or will become well-versed in apprenticeships.

Next, the branch should provide direct outreach or fund school representatives to involve employers hiring in good-paying occupations with shortfalls in skilled workers. Drawing on existing apprenticeship standards, staffers in the state branch and/or school representatives can show individual employers how apprenticeships can benefit their bottom line. One possible partnership is with career academies, schools within high schools that already have an industry or occupational focus and sometimes work with employers to develop internships in fields ranging from health and finance to travel and construction. State or local planning grants could be provided to a partnership of employers and high schools.

Once employers offer well-structured apprenticeship slots in a variety of occupations, high schools can inform sophomores about the opportunities. The worry that apprenticeships will be too stigmatized to attract students is misplaced, as evidenced by the long waiting lists for existing apprenticeships. As the program expands, large numbers of students will love the idea of mastering a rewarding and good-paying occupation while learning by doing and earning wages instead of paying college tuition.

Robert Lerman is an institute fellow in labor and social policy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. E-mail: blerman@urban.org. Twitter: @boblerman