America’s Leading Scholar and Fan of Apprenticeships

Economist Robert Lerman is one of the nation’s leading authorities on apprenticeships. He’s also one of their strongest advocates. I met him two years ago and then interviewed him two weeks ago at his office at the Urban Institute in Washington for a book I’m writing which has grown out of American Experiment’s “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” project. Tentatively titled Educational Roads Less Travelled: How America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees Limits Careers and Economic Prosperity, I’m guessing an editor somewhere along the way will declare the first part insufficiently frightening and change it. Here are a few of his observations from our conversation, very briefly annotated by me.

  • When questions are asked about the potency of skills held by Americans, Professor Lerman noted (not approvingly) how metrics almost always pertain to test scores (achievement) and years in school (attainment), with labor economists no less guilty of the oversimplification than journalists and others. But as he makes clear to colleagues and others, “Hey, there are other skills, too.” As one example of many, I would suggest thinking about men and women who work brilliantly and beautifully with their hands, regardless of how well they might have done on a Saturday morning SAT.

  • Business leaders, Profesor Lerman said, often choose not to sponsor apprenticeship programs because they’re worried about getting tied up in governmental regulations. Fine, he seemed to say, though adding if companies want to do apprenticeships mostly free of regulations, there’s nothing to stop them from going it alone, “as we haven’t copyrighted the word ‘apprenticeship.’” A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but he did point out that a large reason why apprenticeship programs tend to be complicated is precisely the decentralized ways, at the level of firms, they’re started and run.

  • It was not helpful, he argued, when President Trump, in his State of the Union Address a few weeks ago, said we needed more “vocational schools.” I agree with the criticism. (The exact line was, “Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.”) Still, if the president was really talking about strengthening the kinds of public and private technical colleges Minnesota is already rich in; or reinforcing the growth of career and technical education (CTE) programs in high schools across the country; and doing it all with the lightest of federal paws, great, I say.

  • Lerman argued that a certain amount of governmental spending is necessary to help sell companies on the idea of apprenticeship programs, and then help with the organizing and launching. But after that, financing apprenticeship programs is principally a private sector obligation—by which, I trust, he means on the part of both businesses and unions, the latter as applicable. Sounds sound.

  • One of the questions in the book deals with the huge and long-running retirements of well-skilled baby boomers in technically demanding fields such as precision manufacturing, among many others. Given our culture’s powerful bias on behalf four-year degrees, “Where exactly,” I asked, “will we find enough well-skilled successors? How will we make things work?” Comforting or not, Professor Lerman said what I’ve been known to say myself, “It’s a wonder we do as well as we do.”