Are apprenticeships the answer?

Are apprenticeships the answer?

Dear Colleagues,

The U.S. in once again in the throes of wishing it had a robust apprenticeship system for youth (anyone recall School-to-Work?) like those that we see in many other countries.

This renewed interest in apprenticeships comes at time when two trends are converging. The first is the rising cost of higher education and the resultant debt students are saddled with - $1.5 trillion according to recent Federal Reserve estimates. The second is an alarming shortage of workers prepared for or preparing to engage in skilled occupations. Construction trades rank high on most lists, but ironworkers, machinists and welders are among the many fields with reported shortages.

A recent program produced by American Public Media, Old Idea, New Economy: Rediscovering Apprenticeships, highlights the potential for apprenticeships but also the challenges. Chief among the challenges is the stigma associated with not going to college, at least as college is traditionally envisioned. This was the focus of a recent article in The Atlantic, The Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College. Even in an era of rhetoric dominated by the phrase, college and career readiness, the default assumption is that only college makes one career ready .

All of these themes have been echoed during recent curriculum audits conducted by the NRCCTE at SREB. Conversations with employers and others reveal a constant and almost desperate need for what used to be called trades workers (electricians, plumbers, welders and the like) and health care workers. The average age of a manufacturing worker cited by one employer is nearly 60, and companies do not see a talent pipeline to replace them. Another frequently voiced concern is the number of students who are being dissuaded from considering a skills-based CTE program by school personnel. Some employers attributed this to counselors' and other educators' limited knowledge of available career options, but others believed this was a result of the continued stigma associated with CTE programs, especially at regional tech centers. NRCCTE at SREB researchers also heard that neither students nor parents were aware of the many opportunities for good, middle-class careers they could begin to prepare for while still in high school.

The ideal career pathway should allow students to build real, marketable skills linked to high-priority industry sectors while also ensuring they acquire the necessary skills to continue formal education as needed or desired. A critical and often overlooked aspect of this process is work-based learning - apprenticeship being the most intensive form of this pedagogy. WBL at its best serves as occupational socialization, the acquisition of requisite skills and attitudes for an occupation. This arguably works best in an authentic work environment in which adolescents experience and learn the informal norms associated with a type of employment. Apprenticeships in which adolescents spend time working alongside adults provide the greatest opportunity to begin this important process leading to a productive adulthood.

Your thoughts are most welcome - please email me at