Should the U.S. Adopt the German Model of Apprenticeships?

The best youth apprenticeship programs blend traditional high school with skills training — and produce employable graduates.

Students weld at the retraining facility for unemployed in the northern German town of Neubrandenburg, November 24, 2010. 
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
April 11, 2014, 6:42 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a series on Amer­ic­an teen­agers and em­ploy­ment.

Ger­many is all the rage these days as a mod­el for pos­sible eco­nom­ic solu­tions. The coun­try boasts an 8-per­cent youth un­em­ploy­ment rate, a data point that looks prac­tic­ally quaint com­pared to the U.S. teen un­em­ploy­ment rate of more than 20 per­cent. Auto work­ers in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., re­cently tried un­suc­cess­fully to uni­on­ize fol­low­ing the mod­el of the Ger­man “work coun­cils” that aim to in­clude em­ploy­ee in­put in plant de­cisions. And, Ger­mans (along with Aus­trali­ans, Ca­na­dians, and Bri­tons) em­brace ap­pren­tice­ships as a way to train young people for the work­force, be­liev­ing that not every­one needs to go to col­lege to land a de­cent, skilled job.

The idea of ap­pren­tice­ships is gain­ing some trac­tion among D.C. thinkers as a way to tackle the on­go­ing teen em­ploy­ment crisis in this coun­try. After all, ap­pren­tice­ships train work­ers on the job, al­low­ing them to gain con­crete skills and earn real money. They let private-sec­tor em­ploy­ers cre­ate a pipeline of work­ers in skilled pro­fes­sions such as ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing, IT, health care, and hos­pit­al­ity. And, de­pend­ing on how they are struc­tured, ap­pren­tice­ships do not have to cost the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment big money, be­cause the em­ploy­ers, not the feds, pay the train­ees’ salar­ies (a boon in today’s aus­tere times).

Two states, in­clud­ing Wis­con­sin, already run suc­cess­ful ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams. The Wis­con­sin pro­gram trains roughly 2,000 high school ju­ni­ors and seni­ors each year and re­quires them to com­plete 450 to 900 hours of train­ing while earn­ing at least min­im­um wage. The goal is for stu­dents to leave the pro­gram with bank­able skills, as well as earn some tech­nic­al col­lege cred­its. “We view it as a way to get young people in­to the work­force as soon as pos­sible,” says Reg­gie News­on, sec­ret­ary of work­force de­vel­op­ment in Wis­con­sin.

Sev­en­teen-year-old Lacey Hol­comb of Sun Prair­ie, Wis., be­came in­ter­ested in the state’s ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram after en­rolling (and ex­cel­ling) in a hand­ful of weld­ing classes at her high school. Now, as an ap­pren­tice, she di­vides her time between tra­di­tion­al high school classes in the morn­ing and her af­ter­noon work at a man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany called E.K. Ma­chine, which trans­forms raw steel in­to parts for the min­ing, gas, and ag­ri­cul­ture in­dus­tries. “It’s nice to be able to go to school, and then it’s nice to switch to a more hands-on en­vir­on­ment. I tend to learn really well that way,” Hol­comb says.

Her boss at E.K. Ma­chine is equally ex­cited about the ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram. (Hol­comb is the second train­ee he’s ment­ored at the com­pany). “These guys learn way more by do­ing it than they would if went to a post­sec­ond­ary col­lege to learn these skills,” says Shaun Walk­er, who has worked for the com­pany for 14 years.

Bet­ter yet, Walk­er says, the pro­gram helps man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pan­ies identi­fy fu­ture em­ploy­ees. “Fifty to 60 per­cent of Wis­con­sin weld­ers plan to re­tire in the next five to 15 years,” he says. “Any­one who is young like this, get­ting their feet wet, and with some ex­per­i­ence could start a weld­ing job mak­ing between $15 and $20 hour. If kids are will­ing to do this, they don’t have to go to a four-year col­lege to be proud of their ca­reers.”

Geor­gia runs a sim­il­ar ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram, star­ted in the early 1990s. The state gov­ern­ment there helps to pay for tech­nic­al classes that may not be offered in high schools and funds co­ordin­at­ors with­in schools to run the train­ee pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent pa­per on ap­pren­tice­ships from the Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies. More than 6,000 stu­dents en­roll in the Geor­gia pro­gram an­nu­ally.

The only prob­lem with these mod­els? Well, they need more fund­ing and should ex­pand across the coun­try, says eco­nom­ist Robert Ler­man, one of the au­thors of the re­cent ap­pren­tice­ship pa­per. “The Wis­con­sin budget is tiny, re­l­at­ive to the need,” Ler­man says. “It’s been great, but it’s dis­ap­point­ing that [the state hasn’t] been able to scale it.” Wis­con­sin’s Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Scott Walk­er an­nounced $2.3 mil­lion in grants for the youth ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams with­in the last sev­er­al months.

Hol­comb is not sure if she will pur­sue a weld­ing or man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­reer once she gradu­ates from high school. Veter­in­ary medi­cine and ag­ri­cul­ture also in­terest her as po­ten­tial ca­reer paths, as does at­tend­ing col­lege out of state. Still, she’s pleased that she took the time to en­roll in the ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram and hone her weld­ing skills. It’s giv­en her a dif­fer­ent high school ex­per­i­ence than her peers have had. “I know it’s something that I could have a fu­ture in,” she says. “It’s ex­tremely use­ful to have a skill in life. That can give you the up­per hand in any­thing you do.”

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