If you ask around about what exactly the “skills gap” is, you’re likely to hear a few different answers. CEOs might say it’s a symptom of an outdated education system that fails to prepare students for professional life. Meanwhile newspapers might tell you it’s an effort by companies to shift the burden of training employees onto academia instead of investing in it themselves. But the most important answer would come from one of America’s 20 million unemployed young people, who might say, “It’s what’s keeping me from getting a job.”
Regardless of whom you ask, everyone agrees that when 54 percent of employers say they have trouble finding qualified candidates for job openings—whatever the root causes may be—something is broken. They all point to the so-called skills gap as a major reason why youth employment in the US has dipped to post-World War II lows, and as a real cause for concern about America’s competitiveness in the global economy.
But surprisingly, they also all seem to agree that one of the most promising solutions to closing that gap is a tiny and shrinking part of our labor force: apprenticeships.
In America, the term can bring to mind images of Ben Franklin toiling away at the printing press, unpaid and underfed, before being graciously granted entry to the Printers’ Guild and legitimate professional life. But that view betrays a modern global reality.
Around the world, especially in Europe, apprenticeships are a mainstream, practical alternative to the four-year college track that still dominates the traditional American career path—even when that path has proven not to work for everyone.
Despite unanimous recognition that a high school diploma doesn’t cut it in the workplace anymore, a third of America’s young adults fail to earn a college degree by their mid-20s, according to a landmark 2011 Harvard Graduate School of Education study. “The question is, why?” the study’s authors asked. “We fail these young people not because we are indifferent, but because we have focused too exclusively on a few narrow pathways to success.”
The study goes on to promote apprenticeships, which blend classroom learning with on-the-job experience, as one of the most intensive ways to better educate America’s future workers, joining a growing chorus that includes voices as diverse as Siemens, the AFL-CIO and the Obama administration.
So why all the hubbub around apprenticeships? Because in other parts of the world they’re working as a successful bridge between academic and professional life, transforming students into ready-to-hire employees.
In Germany, which runs the oldest and most well-known apprenticeship system, college-age students can train for 356 different jobs—from oven builder to optician. The German dual system of vocational training, as it’s called, teaches classes from curricula designed in partnership with local employers to match the skillsets they’re looking for. But apprentices spend most of their time acquiring on-the-job training as paid employees at those companies.
As for the results? The proof is in the Bavarian pudding. German apprentices, who graduate with nationally recognized professional certificates, are 40 percent more likely to find work within six months after finishing school than American graduates. Not coincidentally, the World Bank reports that over the last five years, Germany had a youth unemployment rate less than half that of the US’s. That same positive correlation between apprenticeships as a share of the workforce and youth unemployment also holds true in Australia and Switzerland, the two other most apprentice-driven economies.
But despite growing calls to adapt these systems for the US, apprenticeship programs across America have fallen by more than a third in the last decade. As of 2012, they accounted for just one quarter of one percent of the overall labor force—16 times less than the share of apprenticeships in Germany.
Now Germany wants to help America grow that number. With more than 3,400 German companies doing business in the US and $216 billion invested in the American economy, it sees an opportunity to put its apprenticeship expertise to work for America’s future workforce.
In 2011, after Siemens, Germany’s fifth-biggest company, built a gas turbine plant in Charlotte, N.C., the company partnered with the nearby Central Piedmont Community College. Together, they designed courses in laser and robotics training and provided apprenticeships for students enrolled in the class. Following the German model, the company underwrites apprentices’ tuition, pays them for their work at the plant, and hires them full-time when they graduate.
If recognition can be considered a measure of success, President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012 was a major milestone for apprenticeship in America. “Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running,” he said, calling for more likeminded collaborations nationwide. “These reforms will help people get jobs that are open today. But to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier.”
Since then, Germany’s continued evangelizing apprenticeship in America, launching The Skills Initiative, a traveling roadshow led by the German Embassy sharing information about best practices in sustainable workforce development. Meanwhile experiments in apprenticeship are emerging across the country with promising results. In Washington, for example, the state workforce board led a study that found apprenticeships to have the best effect on employment among any workforce training programs, including community college and other vocational programs.
As America learns that apprenticeships save students and the government money on education loans, and deliver companies comparatively seamless hiring processes, the practice may finally make a name for itself—and a tangible impact on the economy—in America for the first time since the days of Ben Franklin.