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.