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Apprenticeships (No, Not His Kind)

Here’s a piece of good educational news; a welcomed byproduct of less-encouraging educational news.

There would seem to be a growing appreciation across the nation for the kind of education in which students learn to use their hands – not just for typing and eating as I mostly use mine – but for constructing, beautifying, operating, maintaining, and fixing physically tangible things.  Essential and valued (often undervalued) items from jeweled rings to piston rings.  Elevators which lift people to elevators which lift grain.  A Viking stadium for downtown to a Viking ship for show.  Men and women who cut hair to those repurposing it for chemo patients.  You get the technical and artisan idea.

Driving this trend are the same dynamics which have been doing so for a while, albeit increasingly crisply.

Serious talk reemerged more than a half-dozen years ago about whether too many Americans were going to college.  In introducing a roundtable on the subject in 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education (also known as the “Bible” in the field), noted a “growing sentiment that college may not be the best option for all students” in light of students’ rising indebtedness and the increasing number of them “failing to graduate in four years.”  Student debt, of course, has only grown in both in dollar size and political profile ever since.

Also true both then and now is the significant number of young people who sign up for college, not because they deep-down want to, but because they think they must in order to have a good career.  Far more than occasionally, such men and women wind up bored, dropped out, flunked out, and financially in arrears.

Enter Marco Rubio who, during a Republican presidential debate this past November, contributed what may have been the best soundbite of the evening when he noted that “welders make more money than philosophers” and that “we need more welders and less philosophers.”  True, Rubio’s use of “less” instead of “few” might have demonstrated what we really need are more English majors.  But that aside, one might argue that his comment, and the big play it got, reflected how increasing numbers of Americans students are looking more favorably on what used to be called (usually without much affection) “vocational” education, but is now more approvingly called “career and technical education” or variations on the theme.  Such courses of study routinely entail more sophisticated training than in the past and span both secondary and postsecondary institutions.

Was Rubio’s snappy line definitive proof of this growing interest?  No cigar, Cuban or otherwise.  But data like the following are.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total number of “sub-baccalaureate occupational education credentials” awarded by postsecondary institutions in the United States grew (rounded off) from 885,000 in 2000 to 1,552,000 in 2012.

This broke down over the dozen years:

  • As an increase in less-than-one-year certificates from 263,000 to 449,000.
  • As an increase in one-year-or-more certificates from 276,000 to 486,000.
  • And as an increase in associate degrees from 345,000 to 617,000.

Interestingly, the category “postsecondary institutions” here covers, not just public institutions, but also private nonprofit ones, including much maligned private for-profit schools.  In fact, growth in certificates awarded by four-year, for-profit schools increased from 26,000 in 2000 to 156,000 in 2012.  Surprising and interesting

All of which brings us to the complementary matter of apprenticeships, a subject I plan on returning to frequently in the months ahead for several reasons, the biggest being that apprenticeships, provide a perfect link between my research and writing about education and my research and writing about marriage.  More precisely, it’s clear that marriage rates will not increase adequately until far fewer potential husbands are no longer (in sociologist William Julius Wilson’s famous term) “unmarriageable men.”  Any number of educational routes can help pave ways to altars for them, very much including strong school choice programs, which I’ve focused on for a long time now.  But so can programs in which young men (and young women) acquire strong job skills earlier and more effectively than they otherwise would, if they would at all.

Economist Robert I. Lerman is an emeritus professor at American University and still one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars when it comes to apprenticeships, along with other vital subjects, including low-income youth and their prospects.  Of apprenticeships, he wrote the following in “Skill Development in Middle Level Occupations: The Role of Apprenticeship Training,” a 2013 paper with an international purview.  The paragraph is worth reading in full.

Apprenticeships to train workers for intermediate level careers work well.  Skill development through apprenticeships is closely suited to the needs of employers and the job market, reinforces classroom learning with applications at the workplace, involves trainees in the production process, makes for a seamless transition from school to a career, provides trainees with a natural mentoring process, allows trainees to earn wages while gaining occupational mastery, applies to a wide ranges of occupations, requires less government spending than other education and training strategies, and generally raises the quality of the work forces.  Countries with robust and well-structured apprenticeship programs appear to outperform other countries in achieving low youth unemployment, raising the status of skilled and semi-skilled occupations, and maintaining more good-paying manufacturing jobs.

Apprenticeships, generally speaking, play a larger role in various European countries than in the United States.  For a variety of reasons – strengthening marriage being only one – America’s relative lack of enthusiasm for the practice has not been in our nation’s best interests, quite the opposite.

More to come, especially about apprenticeships in Minnesota.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow.

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