Apprenticeships in a Volatile Labor Market

 When people talk about what it takes to succeed in the labor market today, they may talk about having the right connections or a college degree, but they rarely talk about apprenticeships. Most people in the United States (including many analysts and policymakers) assume that people that want to further their training will enter college after high school, but alternatives such as spending several years training under a skilled craftsperson are not discussed as viable alternatives to a college education. For many, the very idea of apprenticeships either evokes the silliness of Donald Trump’s network reality television show or the quaintness of a bygone era.

Yet there are some serious reasons to consider apprenticeships as one important investment in the skills of American workers.

The case for apprenticeships has been laid out out over several years by Robert Lerman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute (and a former colleague of mine). As of 2008, about 27,000 registered apprenticeship sponsors were training about 480,000 apprentices (mainly entry level workers) in the United States. Lerman points to several potential benefits of apprenticeship programs, for the trainees, the supervisors, and for future employers.

For the trainees one of the main benefits is in developing a broad set of skills without facing the pressure to immediately perform at a level of proficiency. He states: “apprenticeship helps workers to master not only relevant occupational skills but also other work-related skills, including communication, problem-solving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of co-workers.” While these kinds of non-cognitive skills can also be acquired in other settings, including military service and informal employment, the structure and design of an apprenticeship program fosters more personal development for individuals that may enjoy working with their hands but lack the qualifications or desire to attend college. At its best, an apprenticeship provides the discipline and focus of a college education, while equipping a person to enter a relatively high paying profession.

Lerman cites research from a study that matched apprentices and non-apprentices that shows that apprenticeships have much higher earnings than counterparts with no formal training or just a community college education, and projected payoffs of $269 thousand over a lifetime (more than double that of a community college graduate).

For employers, especially in sectors requiring skilled tradespeople, there are substantial benefits to hiring apprentices. In particular, apprentices are able to transition into difficult jobs, require less supervision, and have been previously vetted during their training process (removing some of the uncertainty from hiring new workers). Many of the high growth jobs in the United States are ones that require skilled trades such as advanced manufacturing, weatherization and environmental jobs, and medical technicians.

Still there are some important questions to ask about apprenticeships. First, if apprenticeships are a good economic proposition why are employers not already investing in these programs? In fact, some of the resources and energy for these programs are coming from employers, but there is arguably a large role to be played by labor market intermediaries such as technical schools, which can help to facilitate better matching, disseminate curricula, and certify the skills of trainees. These types of functions are performed on a much larger scale in European countries, including Germany, but the German labor market is less flexible and workers are less likely to churn through jobs (meaning that employers have more of a guarantee that they will get a positive return on the upfront cost of training a worker).

Second, are apprenticeships a risky investment for workers in a rapidly changing economy? One reasonable concern is that workers will train for professions that experience large expansions and then dramatic reductions (such as the construction industry in the last decade). Because apprenticeships prepare workers for fairly narrow careers investing in training may be “putting all the eggs in one basket” (by comparison a college degree is fairly general and allows people to move flexibly through the knowledge professions). To provide more security for workers, measures can be taken to build more all-purpose technical skill training into the apprenticeship curriculum (for example, making sure that all ship-building apprentices gain a certification in welding and basic plumbing).

Creating a much broader and better-funded national apprenticeship program will not address some of the important structural problems in our economy, nor can it make up for all of the pressures of offshoring and declining unionization, but it can be an important pathway into the labor market for many high school graduates that are talented and hard-working, and could use some additional support and mentorship before beginning working life.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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3 Responses to Apprenticeships in a Volatile Labor Market

  1. Beatrice Lam says:

    Thanks very much for this. There are several issues related to the situation in Hong Kong that come to my mind.

    The first issue concerns skilled craftspersons – they are in extinction when the pursuit of a college degree and “academic excellence” is constructed as almost the only viable way to pave one’s “career” path. The way the “knowledge” economy is developing favours “professional” chain-stores at the expense of for example shoemakers and watchmakers, whose tiny little stores are disappearing fast from the city landscape.

    The second issue, related to the first, is the nostalgia attached to skilled craftspersons, but at the same time pejorative connotations of the idea of apprenticeship under these skilled craftspersons. Intellectual development is so much emphasized over other aspects of child development (i.e., physical health, social skills, moral values, aesthetics etc.) despite the promotion of “whole-person development” and “all-rounded education” in policy rhetoric. It is unthinkable for parents – including those interviewed in my study – to send their failing children into apprenticeships. As in Britain, children just can’t “fail” at school, and early exit of schooling and entry into apprenticeships is what signifies “failure” from parents’ – and the society’s – point of view.

    Lastly, if you consider early vocational training in for example automobile repairing for teenagers at the age of 15 as a form of “apprenticeship”, then certainly there’s a minority group of parents who allow their failing boys to leave school and attend vocational colleges as a choice out of no choice. What strikes me is that failing girls are never considered in this light – they are just left to get by until they reach the end of senior secondary schooling. The gendered character of vocational training – or “apprenticeships” – is worth attention in relation to debates on gender inequalities in education and “post-16” options.

    A final comment. University education may afford the kind of flexibility across job positions and security that apprenticeships do not. However, when people in Hong Kong are asking why degree holders are earning a salary that cleaning workers are earning, I smell something very wrong going on not only in the economic and employment structure but also (higher) education provision, which is culturally constructed in wholly instrumental and utilitarian terms in the Hong Kong (Chinese) context. I have no answer to how policy-makers can deal with the malaise of credentials inflation, but it’s worrying for me at least that local policy-makers are seemingly blind to what’s going on when exhausting their energies on engineering the moral panic of “post-90s(-born)” youth lacking enterprise, work ethic, worldwide visions etc. etc.

    Thank you for sharing anyway!

  2. Hi Beatrice,

    Thanks so very much for your thoughtful comment!

    I don’t have any personal knowledge about Hong Kong, so it was fascinating to read what you said (as an aside: Bob Lerman, mentioned in my post, told me that he is going to a big international conference on apprenticeships in China, seems to be a lot of interest in this topic among leaders from Asian countries).

    It’s true that there is less demand for handcrafted artisanal work, over large mass-produced products, but I’d like to see some statistics that break down what proportion of apprentices are employed in artisanal sectors, rather than in harder-to-replace trades such as welding or construction.

    I really liked your second comment, and I see how it could play out in the same way among middle class families in the United States, although apprenticeships could play a big role (as I indicated) for young people not on the college track.

    I also found your third comment intriguing and important — I’m not sure that apprenticeships would work as well for women in some of the male-dominated trades, but I’d like to read more about where female apprentices are finding work, and where they could be employed in the future… some gender stereotypes need to broken down!

    • Beatrice Lam says:

      Hi Brendan,

      Thanks for the important point about the different proportions of apprenticeships in artisan sectors as compared to harder-to-replace trades. While I have no specific figures in hand, what is interesting is that for “technical/ industrial training”, “polytechnics” and “vocational training”, enrollment figures in engineering and construction has remained stable between 1996 and 2006 in Hong Kong, whereas that in textiles and design has been halved (the figures of the latter is in overall 1/4 of the former). This may serve as a remote indicator of the bias against artisan apprenticeships (assuming this is categorized under “design”).

      The gendered patterns in apprenticeships are also validated, with all the cited catogories overwhelmingly male-dominiated. I am really interested in how such patterns bear on the occupational options and trajectories and how this may relate to the persistent gender inequalities and segregation in the employment sturtcure in Hong Kong.

      Final comment: breaking-down of gender stereotypes is essential but is not enough. Ideologically HK proclaims itself as “gender egalitarian” and there’s been all sorts of campaigns against sex/ gender discimination. What is absent is a fundamental ideological shift of gender conceptions which will delink women from their “natural” mothering role – this is what accounts for their interrupted employment trajectories and over-representation in casualised employment. The problem is both cultural (concerning stereotypes)/ ideological and structural and can by no means be alleviated by the so-called gender equality achieved in educational attainment (another long story here) in HK. I am not sure if such observations apply to the UK or US?

      Anyway, thanks very much for taking your time and your sharing!

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