Are Apprenticeship Programs A Good Substitute for College?
In June President Trump announced a plan to provide $200 million to the US Department of Labor to expand apprenticeship programs where “students can learn and earn.” As of June there were 505,000 apprenticeship positions in the US workforce. Fewer than 50,000 apprentices entered the workforce in 2016, before Trump took office. Just over 11,000 were military personnel. The president proposed the funding at the same time he also proposed to cut over $1 billion from other Federal job training programs. There are no specifics as to how the Department of Labor would use the money to expand apprenticeships in the country.
Job creation programs typically have strong support among politicians of both parties and varied ideologies. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were strong advocates for community colleges in their efforts to provide job training. City and county governments have run numerous vocational-technical programs for decades.
A job training program might offer education, even some experience, paid or unpaid, with an employer. But the purpose behind an apprenticeship is to hire a person for an actual job.
An apprenticeship might pay a lower wage at the start of a training period, with raises as the apprentice completes various stages of training. If the apprentice fails to complete the apprenticeship, s/he is left with little than can be transferred into skills that might be used in another job. Outside of the military, there’s more risk for employers and employees in establishing apprenticeship programs than there would be in developing a partnership to create a certificate or degree program with a college.
What must apprenticeship programs offer to be adequate substitutes for a college education, even an Associates degree or certificate from a public community college?
- Employment Security. While employers want authority to recruit, select and develop apprentices, the employees will enter these programs with some hopes of secure, possibly long term, employment. This not only means a good salary; it also means health benefits and opportunities to save.
- Employability Security. When employers commit to hiring apprentices, they have the responsibility to continue to train them after the apprenticeship period is over. If the employer faces difficult business conditions, employees should have the skills to find a new job in a similar industry. The fortunate former apprentices have also received the training in the latest technology, among other things, to remain employable.
- A Path Upward, But Also Outward. Employment in skilled trades often depends on maintaining coordination, dexterity and fitness as well as a continued willingness to learn. However, as people age, they become less capable of doing physical labor. They will need to be trained to do something else, possibly supervise or teach.
Advocates for apprenticeships have argued that they will pay higher wages and offer better benefits than many entry-level jobs held by college graduates. This may be true when comparing a newly minted apprentice to a college graduate who has just received a liberal arts degree with limited exposure to business skills, computing, math or “hard” science. But apprentices have a more limited education that might not help when business conditions in their industry go south. They can be forced to relocate where there are more job opportunities or pursue an education in a new field. That defeated the purpose for becoming an apprentice in the first place.
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