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In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the Hoover Institution’s Rick Hanushek offered a word of caution about our current rush to apprenticeships. There are three parts of his argument worth special attention.
The first relates to Germany’s system, which is often pointed to as a model that we should follow. Hanushek notes that apprenticeships fit more neatly over Germany’s employment architecture of longstanding employer experience with workforce training, national standards for apprenticeships, and “a relatively rigid labor market that relies on certification as a hiring credential.” The point is that Germany’s approach to apprenticeships has been adapted over decades to the nation’s approach to employment — so that model of workforce development isn’t necessarily well-tailored to our approach to employment.
Second, Hanushek points to his new research (which I wrote about here) showing that the benefits of having gone through an apprenticeship wear off, and those with a general high school education can ultimately end up better positioned than those who were vocationally trained. So we should appreciate that a gung-ho apprenticeship initiative could get some employment points on the board early but leave people struggling down the line.
Third, Hanushek makes the very important point that we can’t see apprenticeships as a substitute for the core of schooling (reading, math, writing, etc.). For years, many American students who’d fallen behind academically by the time they reached high school were directed into vocational programs. But a successful lifetime of work depends on “more general cognitive skills” that enable individuals to navigate the ever-changing workplace. Training in particular skills for a specific job shouldn’t be seen as a sufficient band-aid for academically struggling students or schools.
Hanushek makes the very important point that we can’t see apprenticeships as a substitute for the core of schooling… a successful lifetime of work depends on “more general cognitive skills” that enable individuals to navigate the ever-changing workplace.
Hanushek’s warning, however, comes on the heels of President Trump’s executive order on “Expanding Apprenticeships in America.” The EO cites many of the familiar challenges (unaffordable higher education, the national “skills mismatch,” unsuccessful workforce training programs), and it sees apprenticeships as a solution. It declares, “It shall be the policy of the Federal Government to provide more affordable pathways to secure, high paying jobs by promoting apprenticeships and effective workforce development programs, while easing the regulatory burden on such programs and reducing or eliminating taxpayer support for ineffective workforce development programs.”
Among other things, the EO directs several cabinet secretaries to consider regulatory and policy changes to promote more apprenticeships by more providers; use apprenticeships to help high-need individuals including those formerly incarcerated and/or without a high school diploma; and incorporate more apprenticeships into two- and four-year higher-education courses of study.
Similarly, Senators Cantwell and Collins have just introduced the “Apprenticeship and Jobs Training Act of 2017.” It would create a tax credit for employers that create new or expand existing apprenticeships. In a floor speech, Sen. Collins explained how the legislation would address the skills-gap challenge, give special attention to high-need industries, and reward employers that continue to employ their apprentices. A helpful piece by Michael Prebil of New America explains how the Cantwell-Collins bill also aims to encourage employers to use older, higher-wage workers as apprenticeship mentors instead of cutting their hours.
Obviously, America is facing some serious labor force challenges, and apprenticeships could undoubtedly be helpful. But Hanushek’s brake-pumping is valuable. Too often in domestic policy we swerve toward the latest, hottest fixes for complicated problems. That can cause countless unintended consequences and distract us from the slower, less flashy, but essential work of addressing underlying problems. In other words, perhaps apprenticeships might be the right path for older workers whose jobs have fallen victim to automation or been off-shored; or maybe apprenticeships could be perfect for an early-career job when the employer and employee recognize that ongoing skills upgrades will be needed.
But we’d be wise to appreciate the limitations of apprenticeships as we develop more expansive strategies for helping people find and keep great jobs.