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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Apprenticeship: Will it work in the U.S.?

Apprentices learn control engineering in Leipzig, Germany Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch/dpa/Corbis

The much-admired German apprenticeship system “relies on a very stratified education system along with regulated and heavily unionized labor markets,” writes Eric Hanushek in Education Next. Furthermore, it produces narrowly trained workers who aren’t prepared for changing work demands.

Half of all German youth participate in their vocational and apprenticeship system, which itself builds upon school tracking that occurs in the 4th  grade. The dual system involves youth at the end of compulsory school splitting their time between workplace learning (3 to 4 days of the week) and academic learning in government-funded schools for the remainder of the week. The apprenticeships lead to certification in over 300 occupations, ranging from traditional blue-collar trades to an expansive set of white-collar occupations, including international technology specialists, professional engineers and a variety of administrative jobs.

Switzerland and Austria have similar systems.

Germans with vocational training, as compared to general education, lose their employment edge over time, his research shows. By age 50, former apprentices begin leaving the labor market.

Some believe a workforce with narrow skills and problems adapting to change explains slower growth in Europe, compared to the U.S., Hanushek writes.

The limited existing apprenticeships in the U.S. have been most successful in the building trades, in large part because of their unionized and regulated employment. Indeed, in many people’s minds discussion of apprenticeships leads to images of the neighborhood plumber or electrician who is paid high wages for ever-needed services. If currently unskilled youth could be provided training in these areas, there could be obvious employment gains. But, such trades are a small portion of the available unfilled jobs. The larger skill gaps are found in a wide range of service and technology areas, many in the white-collar occupations.

Poorly educated youths will have trouble learned skilled occupations, writes Hanushek. Job training can’t  substitute for “high-quality primary and secondary schooling that provides basic cognitive skills to all and prepares them for an uncertain future.”

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