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)

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."