We have to retool and retrain people for 21st-century jobs. I think that’s not impossible. … Americans are afraid [to reinvent themselves] because they don’t even know what the first step looks like, and that’s on ... the government and public service to show people the way. We have come through many stages in America where we’ve helped people walk through new doors and new opportunities, but there’s a fear and a reluctance towards change. ...[For some] it’s about this sense of pride that these people have been doing this for years and their parents did it before them. We have to deal with it delicately because it’s dignity, it’s history. We have to help people transition skills-wise and psychologically.
Fadulu: How difficult do you think it will be to get the federal government to invest in apprenticeships?
Campa-Najjar: President Trump’s [June 2017] executive order and his stated goal of increasing the number of apprenticeships by] 5 million ... is a good gesture. It’s moving in the right direction, [even though] it’s not even close to what we need. But that tells me there’s a bipartisan sentiment in the power and effectiveness and need and urgency of apprenticeship.
Fadulu: Even though a company has invested in an apprentice, couldn’t the apprentice leave and go elsewhere for a job that pays better? It sounds risky from a business perspective.
Campa-Najjar: There are certain agreements that could prevent that. Unions, when they do apprenticeships, they just say, “If we train you, you have committed to staying for five years.” It’s almost like the military. ... Maybe there's just [a need for] accountability on both sides [when it comes to companies and their employees]. The employer and employee come into this relationship where we’re going to train you and you will work for us for the next five years. We’ll put you on this curriculum where every couple months you get a promotion. ... So I think there are some things legislatively we could do to make that happen.
Fadulu: Do apprenticeships ever include lessons on, say, how to be a good person or espouse the value of knowledge for the sake of knowledge?
Campa-Najjar: I think that if we see this massive exodus [of people] out of colleges, that will happen, but that's not what people who support apprenticeship are calling for. It's college for the rest of us. It’s not saying, “Hey! Don't go to college.” It’s like, “If you’re not going to go to college, face the fact that you need more skills” and “If you’re not going to do college because of debt, because you don’t want to spend the time, because you just don’t care about getting an education of that kind, there is an alternative.”
And sometimes apprentices go back to college because they want to manage the project they had been working on [in their apprenticeship] and they get support from their employer [to do so]. ...I think [apprenticeship and higher education are] more complementary—that’s why a lot of community colleges are on the front lines of making apprenticeship work. They just see it as another step in continuing education.