Should Americans Finally Buy Into European-Style Apprenticeships?

Such a national endeavor could reduce youth unemployment, make college free, and reduce the skills gap. So why are we so ambivalent?

President Obama has offered career and technical education programs as a possible solution to unemployment, the “skills gap,” costly college education, and the dissolving middle-class salary. (Whitney Arlene Crispell)

Plumbers, HVAC technicians, welders, and electricians. That’s who comes to mind when most Americans think of apprenticeship programs or vocational training. Those jobs offer dependable work and a good middle-class income.

But in a country where there’s a “devaluation with people who work with their hands,” as Peter Cookson Jr., director of the Equity Project at the American Institute of Research, puts it, the person we often picture in a vocational program is someone on the rebound, making up for bad high school grades and possibly a troubled past. Our collective impression of vocational training is so bad that it’s been rebranded “career-and-technical education.”

Almost since he took office, President Obama has offered career-and-technical-education programs as a possible solution to unemployment, the “skills gap,” costly college education, and the dissolving middle-class salary. In September, the Labor Department awarded $175 million to a collection of high schools, community colleges, and organizations to fund apprenticeship programs across the U.S. The money went to help, among many more, 330 students in central Virginia train for jobs in advanced manufacturing. It will help 450 apprentices find healthcare jobs in Juneau, Alaska. And in Santa Clara, California, Mission College said it will use its award to get veteran, Latino, black, and female students into the tech industry.

Traditionally, most apprenticeship programs have been small and initiated by company and community partners. But scaling up to a countrywide system, like those in many European countries, will take much more than money and willpower. It’s going to take a shift in our national psyche, or what Cookson Jr. calls our “background problem—that everyone is going to be rich, and that all you need is ambition and luck. The Horatio Alger story.”

Take Germany, for example.

Its “dual system” allows young people who decide that university isn’t their fit to enroll in a work/learn program. A student might spend three days a week working for—and being paid by—a company, and the other days studying in class. This goes on for about three years. Afterward, they segue into full-time work. Because the company and state underwrite it, the cost is around 15,000 euros to train one student. But with increased production, the country says it’s only an investment of about 3,500 euros.

About 60 percent of young people in Germany train through apprentice programs, and they go on to work in more than 340 different occupations, many of them blue-collar, but also in fields like marketing, pharmacology, sales, and accounting. All of this takes massive oversight and regulation. The German federal government sets standards for exams and training. The states set and ensure that colleges and universities follow the curriculum. And companies help supply teachers and evaluate student competency.

Companies hire trained workers. Students get a free education and a job. And at 8 percent, the German economy hums along with one of the lowest youth-unemployment rates in the Eurozone. In 2013, Spain, with 53 percent of its young workers unemployed, signed a deal to import Germany’s program. So did Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, and Slovakia.

Another recent adopter (although not of the exact German system) is the United Kingdom. After the global economic crisis, high youth unemployment, and an aging workforce headed for retirement, the U.K. underwent a “political and social sea change in the way people view apprenticeships,” says Mikki Draggoo with the London-based City & Guilds Group. The U.S., Draggoo says, faces the same exact challenges, especially in regards to its experienced but soon-to-be retired workforce. “You can’t sit and wait in the U.S. and fill the gap of forty years of experience with someone straight out of university.”

An obvious problem for the U.S. if it wanted to adopt a large-scale apprenticeship program would be regulation. That’s not a word that politicians are eager to adopt. Something like this would also need enormous interest from a large number of influential companies, although there already seems to be interest bubbling to the surface.

In North Carolina, Siemens runs an apprentice program that trains students to make steam turbines for power plants. The company promises to pay participants $55,000 after graduation. In New York, P-TECH trains high school students in computer science for jobs with IBM. Companies such as Pepperidge Farm, Blue Cross Blue Shield, 3M, Ford, Rolls Royce, Walgreens, and Whirlpool offer apprenticeships, Draggoo said.

But perhaps the largest hurdle to importing the German system is how it helps students make up their minds.

Before they graduate high school, German students take an exam that helps determine whether they’re equipped to study at a university, or whether they’re better suited for a vocational path. In American education, the practice is called tracking. Critics have called it a “modern-day form of segregation.”

Even if the U.S. can get past career-and-technical education’s ties to rehabilitated lives and manual labor, instituting a countrywide apprenticeship program would almost certainly mean reinforcing the idea that not everyone is cut out for a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, in our current system, student loans have reached the “bonkers” level, at 1.2 trillion dollars (surpassing all commercial debt and the combined GDP of three major countries). Oftentimes, the price tag for a bachelor’s degree deters lower-income students from applying to four-year universities. And community colleges, the affordable alternatives, have ghastly graduation rates of 39 percent, making some of them little more than well-intentioned debt mills.

“The consequence of not addressing this issue,” Cookson Jr. says, “is going to be lower wages, increased joblessness, increased class division, and a very divided society.”