Why the U.S. Fails at Worker Training

Automation and globalization are making some workers’ skills obsolete. Why can’t the federal government figure out how to successfully prepare Americans for the future?

When asked about Donald Trump’s June 2017 executive order calling for the expansion of apprenticeships, Anthony Carnevale says it’s just “good PR.”

Carnevale—the research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce—believes the high costs of apprenticeships and the U.S.’s dark past with job training will stymie the effort, which aims to help people find jobs in an economy that is rapidly changing primarily because of technological advances. According to Carnevale, apprenticeships—in which aspiring workers learn a trade from a skilled employer in exchange for low wages—can be extremely expensive. The high cost deters employers from participating.

The U.S. has never gotten job training and retraining right. Under the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, the federal government invested billions of dollars in programs aimed at helping Americans adjust to a changing economy, such as the automation of the steel industry in the late 20th century and foreign competition in places like Japan and China.

But these programs came under scrutiny for many reasons, including the fact that they tended to pigeonhole certain types of students into blue-collar jobs rather than higher education. “The kids that weren’t making it to college were black, brown, and low income and working class,” Carnevale says.

Successful apprenticeship programs aren’t impossible. The apprenticeship model thrives in European countries such as Germany, partly because wages vary less across industries than they do in the U.S. In the U.S., apprenticeship programs are difficult to institutionalize because employees are more likely than their European counterparts to leave a job for a different one that offers better wages. Investing thousands of dollars in someone who may leave for a better wage opportunity is a risk few employers are willing to take.

I spoke with Carnevale about what he learned from his time on President George W. Bush’s White House Commission on Technology and Adult Education and on President Bill Clinton’s National Commission on Employment Policy, and about why the U.S. has never been a training nation. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: What was the goal of Bush’s Commission on Technology and Adult Education?

Anthony Carnevale: There was fear then that we were automating the hell out of manufacturing in America. There was a concern among economists that we'd all end up with what people used to call “McJobs”: low-wage service jobs. We were there to try to figure out if all that was going to happen and we never agreed on whether it would or not.

It turned out that the truth was technology was going to kill off a lot of jobs, and it was going to create a lot more jobs. When I was on that commission, there were about 90 million jobs in the American economy, and now, if you count full-time and part-time, it's about 150 [million jobs]. So the notion that technology is killing the labor market is not true.

Fadulu: What else, in addition to the executive order on apprenticeships, should the Trump administration do to prepare people for the changing economy?

Carnevale: Apprenticeship is a bright and shiny object. It is the gold standard for job training. Europeans invented it long before we ever did it. The [first] problem with apprenticeships in the U.S. is we can't do much job training before the end of high school because if we do, we will end up putting African Americans, Latinos, working class, and poor kids into those programs and the rich white kids will go to college. Politically, we're unable to do job training in the K-12 system, so it has to start after high school. We’ve mostly done it through a postsecondary-education and training system, which is mostly two-year and four-year schools—technical institutes.The no. 2 problem is that an apprenticeship in manufacturing and any technical field costs anywhere from $60,000 to $260,000 [per apprentice]. The employer normally pays for that. States and the federal government are about to give employers [even greater] tax breaks to have them do apprenticeships, but they aren’t going to give them $260,000 dollars.

Fadulu: Why will we end up putting poor kids of color into those job-training programs?

Carnevale: When the American economy began to change [in the late 20th century], the first thing that happened was the youth’s labor market collapsed. We all went to Europe to see apprenticeship because the minute you start seeing unemployment, the Europeans always look good. Everybody's happy; people like apprenticeships. It gets them good jobs, family stability.

We all came back and said, “Okay, we're going to have an [apprenticeship] program.” [Bill Clinton] promised apprenticeship in the campaign for his first term. By the time we got elected …  employers and labor unions came to us and said, “You can do whatever you want but don't call it ‘apprenticeship.’” We don't want the government fooling around with ‘apprenticeship.’”

So we took off the word “apprenticeship” and it became something called School to Work, which we passed and funded at $500 million. The public wanted nothing to do with it because if I go to any middle-class school in America, any high school, and say, “You know, Johnny and Mary, they're not doing so good in this academic thing that's going to send them to college. We're going to put them on another track,” [their parents] probably aren't gonna like that.

It just so happens that in America, the kids that weren't making it to college were black, brown, and low income and working class, and women, too. The American system has always been brutally efficient. We invest the next dollar available on education to the highest achiever. Eventually, this results in the great sorting between high school and college where we continue to invest in the college population, which is always the students in whom we’ve already made the biggest public investments in grade school and high school.

Those advantaged kids go to college, graduate, get good jobs, marry each other, move into neighborhoods with good schools and with neighbors who look just like them, and the cycle continues. The minority and low-income students get the least investments from families and schools, and they don’t go to college because they’re either not prepared or they can’t afford it. They then to go work in low-wage jobs, marry people who look like them, and move into neighborhoods with the weakest public schools, and the cycle continues.

So this is the reason we stopped vocational education in America. In America, and I can tell you this, if you're a politician and you stand in front of a crowd and say, “We're gonna have vocational training in high school,” every parent in that room is gonna be saying, “I'll be damned if you're going to put my kid in that because my kid's going to college.”

Fadulu: Why didn’t people want the word “apprenticeship” used in the name of the program?

Carnevale: In those days, business people associated the word “apprenticeship” with unions. Well, American employers don't like unions. Neither do Americans. The unions also didn't want the word “apprenticeship” because they didn't want the government to have any control over apprenticeship.

So, in the United States … there are no real standards [when it comes to apprenticeship]. Trump [indicated that the government will have even less of a role] when he said, “We're going to have even fewer standards.” So what's going to happen in America is a lot of things that are actually internships, they're going to be called apprenticeships—and the public's going to pay for them through the state tax credits.

Fadulu: In which jobs do apprenticeships work?

Carnevale: Technical jobs, where there's a lot of learning on the job. Most of them tend to require that you get some education after high school before you can get into them. Some of them don't.

But those technical jobs might be impacted by automation. So even if you do have apprenticeships where people are guaranteed work, there's still the possibility that those jobs can be automated and those people will lose the job.

Technical jobs are—especially at the [bachelor’s degree] level, but even at the [associate’s degree] level— some of the best paid with the exception of graduate-level professional jobs like [doctors]. They are also the [jobs] where there's the most risk [for becoming obsolete]. You have to keep up with the technology or you'll get left behind. Technology jobs are high risk, high reward.

Fadulu: Are there federal retraining programs for older adults?

Carnevale: There are. We spend $6 billion, $7 billion on [the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act]. If we were funding it at the same service level we funded [the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] during the Carter administration, it would be at $30 billion.

We shifted from training during the Clinton administration, which decided, during the second term, that training wasn't working. It was too narrow. Also, when you went to voters and you promised subsidies for higher education, that moved voters. Promising training doesn’t get you any votes because people always think training is for somebody who either failed or is for somebody else's kid.

We’re not a training nation. We spend $8 billion a year on training, compared to $500 billion on higher education. We’re an education nation.

Fadulu: Why have we never been a training nation?

Carnevale: Because that is a working-class thing. America has always done economically well, so there’s never been any threat that a working-class revolution on the totalitarian right or totalitarian left would take over the government. In the European nations, they had real communists and real fascists that took over the working classes and were threatening to take over their governments. After WWII, they knew they had to build out a very highly regulated relationship between their education and the economy to ensure employment, especially for males. And training was part of that. They very quickly built out things like apprenticeships, job guarantees, employment guarantees, [and] three-to-five-year unemployment insurance.

In the United States, we’ve never had that kind of collaboration between government, industry, education, and unions. The U.S. did do training at one point after WWII when we believed that only about 15 percent of high-school kids needed to go to college.

Now, all U.S. students get an academic education through high school, and there really is no vocational prep in high school anymore. The American K-12 system does not make people job-ready, it makes people college-ready. We end up with no training in high school but have turned to higher education to do more workforce development. The training budget in the U.S. government is $8 billion, and the government and families spend over $500 billion dollars on college education. The model in America is “high school to Harvard.”