Discussion: (2 comments)
Comments are closed.
Earlier this month, President Trump signed an executive order to double the amount of funding for apprenticeship programs, up to nearly $200 million. The goal is, in Trump’s words, “training people to have great jobs and high paying jobs.” These goals are also top of mind for young adults: in survey after survey, college students make it clear that they are seeking higher wages and better career prospects in return for their investment.
Historically, America has emphasized the production of bachelor’s degrees as the means by which young people can reach these goals. On its face, this seems prudent: on average, bachelor’s degree holders enjoy substantial lifetime returns over those of high school graduates. But many colleges do not equip graduates with the skills required for labor-market success. In turn, employers bemoan their inability to find students with necessary skills, and graduates face underemployment and lower-than-expected earnings. In short, this bachelor’s-or-bust approach is not working for students or employers.
The problem is that the bachelor’s degree has become the ultimate end of higher education, at the expense of students’ rationale for seeking an education: a good job and a steady wage. Instead, if we prioritized teaching marketable skills rather than producing degrees, then an assortment of pathways would naturally emerge that lead students to their desired outcomes. These options could be faster and cheaper than four-year programs, with better outcomes to boot.
Indeed, some alternate pathways already exist. One that has received a lot of recent attention is “coding bootcamps” like General Assembly, The Iron Yard, and Galvanize. Students spend three to six months in intensive coding programs, in lieu of four or more years for a B.S. in computer science. Better yet, bootcamps often boast high salaries and near-perfect placement rates, a function of their ties to employers in cutting-edge fields.
Apprenticeships also offer work-centric instruction with excellent employment opportunities and solid wages. Yet, despite both the Obama and Trump Administrations praising these programs, apprenticeships are still a road less travelled. According to Department of Labor statistics, apprenticeship programs graduated only around 50,000 apprentices in 2016, compared to two million bachelor’s degrees granted the same year.
What might explain these programs’ lack of growth? Apprenticeships have been around for ages, but are often viewed as viable for a small slice of students. This stems partly from the perception that apprenticeships are “blue collar” or for those who aren’t “college material.” The belief that apprenticeships are heavily controlled by labor unions and lead only to jobs in construction has also hampered growth.
In most states, there’s a dearth of data on how apprentices fare in the workforce. One exception: Florida. Florida tracks the median first-year wages and employment rates for 12 apprenticeship programs offered by “district technical centers,” a key component of its postsecondary education system. These programs range from plumbing technology to machining to early childhood education, and most of them result in median first-year wages between $40,000 and $55,000, compared to only $34,000 for bachelor’s degree holders. The most lucrative program, for elevator constructor mechanics, boasts median first-year wages of $91,000. Similarly, employment rates also favor apprenticeship graduates, with all but one program reporting a rate of 83% or higher, compared to 71% for bachelor’s degree programs.
Yes, federal data show that wages of bachelor’s degree recipients grow at a faster rate than those of students completing apprenticeships. That means, over time, the wage gap between four-year graduates and apprentices will narrow and potentially reverse. However, many graduates of apprenticeship programs are solidly in the middle class, making family-sustaining wages. Importantly, many of them might have had difficulty completing the classroom-focused instruction that’s required for a bachelor’s degree.
While we praise coding bootcamps that train students to fill a need in our increasingly technological economy, we should also laud apprenticeship programs that train students to fix the plumbing, air conditioning, electrical systems, and elevators that make bootcamps—and almost everything else in our society—function. And we need to collect and disseminate more data to inform young adults about apprenticeship opportunities, helping to spread the model to more students and develop programs covering more career options.
Comments are closed.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2018 American Enterprise Institute