Our guest author today is Robert I. Lerman, Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute and Professor of Economics at American University. Professor Lerman conducts research and policy analyses on employment, income support and youth development, especially as they affect low-income populations. He served on the National Academy of Sciences panel examining the U.S. post-secondary education and training system for the workplace.
In a recent Washington Post article, Peter Whoriskey points out the striking paradox of serious worker shortages at a time of high unemployment. His analysis is one of many indicating the difficulties faced by manufacturing firms in hiring enough workers with adequate occupational skills. As a result, many firms are having serious problems meeting the demand for their products, putting on long shifts, and turning down orders.
The article cites a survey of manufacturers indicating that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. The skilled jobs going begging include machinists, welders, and machine operators — jobs that pay good wages. So what happened?
First, this is not a new problem. A few years ago, the head of a workforce agency in Texas reported that firms wanted skilled machinists for the aircraft industry. When he turned to the training system, he found that virtually no high schools, community colleges, or local training organizations were training for this occupation.
Second, today’s difficult situation is likely to get worse, both because skilled tradespeople are aging out of the workforce, and because occupational skills training is eroding. High school vocational education programs are being crowded out as state and federal governments require all students to complete a college curriculum in order to graduate high school. Between 1984 and 2004, career and technical education (CTE) course credits have been declining and a narrow, “college for all” implementation of “common core” standards may reduce involvement in CTE programs much further. Moreover, neither community colleges nor high school CTE programs are providing their students with the necessary hands-on experience required to gain mastery in a skilled occupation.
Third, America’s implicit college-for-all goal is diverting the attention of policymakers away from effective career-focused approaches to education and training. Today’s academics-only emphasis ignores the critical importance of employability skills (communications, problem-solving, working well under deadline, taking instruction, learning from experience) and occupational skills. In particular, U.S. business/policymakers are failing to look to one of the most successful strategies for training workers—a rigorous apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship is a time-honored and widely used method for preparing workers to master occupational skills and achieve career success. Apprentices earn a salary while receiving training, primarily through supervised, work-based learning, but also with related academic instruction. Employers, joint union-employer agreements, government agencies, and the military — all sponsor apprenticeship programs.
Apprentices are employees at the firms and organizations where they are training, and combine productive work along with learning experiences that lead to demonstrated proficiency in a significant array of tasks. In addition, apprentices are required to complete course work on math, verbal, and occupation-specific content. The apprenticeship experience helps workers gain relevant occupational skills and other work-related skills, including communications, problem-solving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of co-workers. The course work is generally equivalent to at least one year of community college. By completing apprenticeship training, workers earn a recognized and valued credential attesting to their mastery of the skills required in the relevant occupation.
Young people also reap many developmental benefits from engaging in apprenticeships. They work with natural adult mentors who can guide them, but allow them to make their own mistakes. Youth see themselves judged by the established standards of a discipline, including deadlines, and the genuine constraints and unexpected difficulties that arise in the profession.
Looking at other industrialized nations, we see that robust apprenticeship programs (as in Germany and Switzerland) are associated with low youth unemployment rates and higher than average shares of workers in manufacturing. Manufacturing industries employed over 22 percent of German workers and nearly 16 percent of Swiss workers in 2008, much higher than the 10 percent of workers in the U.S. who held jobs in manufacturing. If the U.S. matched the German manufacturing share of employment, then the U.S. would have generated 18 million additional manufacturing jobs.
Although we have an apprenticeship system that is delivering high rates of return for workers and firms, the system is small compared to other countries and disconnected from young people during the critical 17-20 age period. Firms are not offering many apprenticeships, in part because they expect community colleges to do this training.
Another possibility is that firms avoid apprenticeships because they identify them with unionization and because of the decline in the private sector work force represented by unions. Furthermore, no one markets apprenticeships and provides relevant technical assistance. One reason is the miniscule level of resources put into expanding apprenticeships. The budget for the Office of Apprenticeship is only about $28 million for the U.S. as a whole. In practical terms, this means, for example, that only two people are helping create apprenticeships in Indiana, a state with considerable amounts of manufacturing.
We know a good deal and can learn more from other countries on how to develop effective strategies for training young people to gain the skills required for the many industrial jobs going begging. One hopeful sign is that several states are responding constructively to a recent Harvard School of Education report that recommends using work-based learning to widen the pathways to successful careers. The report specifically cites the positive experience of countries with well-developed apprenticeship programs.
It is time to mount a vigorous effort to expand apprenticeship training, both to deal with vacancies that are hampering the economic expansion in manufacturing and to diversify our approach to preparing young people for a wide array of rewarding careers. This will require a significant but affordable increase in dollars for federal and state apprenticeship offices so they can market and provide technical assistance to encourage more apprenticeships. It will also require a change in the mindset of policymakers and the public to recognize that young people differ in their interests, and in their ways of learning and that rewarding occupations differ in the mix of academic and vocational training required to achieve a successful career.
- Robert I. Lerman