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Making Youth Apprenticeships Work

Most work requires both academic knowledge as well as skill and craft knowledge.  That is true for both the carpenter and the surgeon.  It is just as true now as it was 1,000 years ago that the best way to acquire craft knowledge is by being in an environment where you can apprentice yourself to a master who will give you assignments of progressively challenging difficulty, observe and critique your performance, give demonstrations, and explain the fine points.  So the renewed interest in youth apprenticeship in the United States is very promising. 

Apprenticeship is hardly a new idea in the United States.  Unions have been providing opportunities for apprenticeships in the building trades for a long time and they do it very well.  We even have apprenticeships, though we do not call them that, in some of our most respected professions, like medicine, where newly minted doctors must begin their work under the close supervision of experienced doctors during their residency.  But, apprenticeship does not play the central role in preparing young people for work that we often see in Europe.

There is a reason that youth apprenticeship has played only a minor role in the United States.  Few American employers are willing to provide opportunities for young people to have that kind of experience because it costs a lot of money to do it well and employers are afraid, with reason, that, if they make the investment, their competitors will poach their trainees, leaving the employer that provided the training with little more than the bill for the training.

There are other reasons, too.  A properly constructed youth apprenticeship program pays the apprentices for their labor, but not as much as the prevailing wage.  American unions have been wary of this, worrying that the widespread availability of apprentices in many lines of work might depress wages generally for regular adult workers.  Many companies don't want the liabilities that come with acting in an in loco parentis capacity; don't want the overhead costs associated with meeting the requirements for offering a proper apprentice training program on their premises; don't want their executives spending time establishing and updating industry standards for the work and all the other tasks involved in setting up and operating such systems. 

But the objection that another firm has a strong incentive to steal your employees after you have gone to the expense of training them wanes when most companies in an industry are involved in training.  Indeed, when that happens, a firm that competes on quality is at a big disadvantage if it does not train apprentices.  That's because firms that train can take their pick of their apprentices when it comes time to decide who to offer a job and when they pick their own apprentices they not only know a lot about the candidates, but they have had a chance to train them their own way.  So there is a strong incentive for firms competing on quality to train young people.  

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The question is how to get from no companies doing it to most companies doing it.  There are at least two ways to get there.  One is to get firms that have built their own workforce using apprentice systems in other countries—typically in Europe—to do the same thing here in the United States.  This has worked pretty well in a number of states, particularly in states with large numbers of firms, like Siemens, that are headquartered in Germany.  The thinking is that, if the state can get these firms that understand the benefits of an apprenticeship system to take the lead, then their competitors here in the United States might follow.

Another is for top political leaders of a state, the governor or the secretary for economic development, to lead an effort to persuade CEOs of key firms in the state to organize their industry for apprenticeship, offering state support and incentives to firms and industries that take the initiative.

This may or may not work.  When Singapore decided years ago that it wanted to build one of the world's strongest career and technical education systems, it decided that, lacking the centuries-old history of apprenticeships that existed in countries like Denmark Austria, Germany and Switzerland, it was not going to be able to get enough employers on board to go to scale in Singapore.  So Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) took the lead in designing an alternative, initially in the form of a pilot program.

The EDB invited three countries--France, Japan and Germany--to set up, at their own expense, a special school offering a program at the upper division of high school (grades 11 and 12 in the U.S.).  The one I visited on my first trip to Singapore years ago was run by Germany and focused on factory automation.  You can find a longer description of it and of the whole Singapore career and technical education system, as well as that of Switzerland, here. What is important is that the school was set up to look and feel as much like a modern factory as possible.  In their first year, the students took the foundation courses in advanced mathematics, materials science, physics, chemistry, CAD/CAM and so on that they would need as preparation for their second year.  In the second year, they actually built advanced factory automation systems for global companies with major manufacturing operations in Singapore.  The faculty was responsible for bringing these contracts back to the school.  The companies paid going rates for the factory automation systems the school contracted to produce so they expected state-of-the-art products.  The equipment was sophisticated and modern. The faculty supervised the work, but the students built all the hydraulic, pneumatic, electronic and mechanical subsystems required for the finished product.  Faculty were required to leave the school every few years to get a job in some other country working in an advanced factory automation plant at the leading edge of the field and to revise the curriculum when they came back in the light of what they had learned.  Almost all the faculty members were graduates of the University of Singapore's Graduate School of Engineering.  Industry demand for the graduates of the school I have just described was off the charts.

That school no longer exists.  The pilot program was used to redesign the whole Singapore career and technical education system in its image.  Future airplane mechanics learn their trade on current Rolls Royce jet engines donated by the Rolls airplane maintenance operation in Singapore.  Students who will build some of the largest and most complex ocean-going oil drilling rigs in the world learn their trade on completely up-to-date machinery donated by one of the world's largest oilrig builders.  Students who will go to work as baristas learn their trade in a coffee shop in the Institute for Technical Education that looks for all the world just like a Starbucks and charges what Starbucks charges for the coffee.  Future chefs learn how to cook in a school that has partnered with a leading French chef.

It is very expensive to do it the way Singapore has done it.  That's because they have done it right, with authentic learning environments that really do look and feel just like the real thing, often producing products and services that are sold at market rates, employing faculty whose knowledge and skills are right at the state of the art, just like the tools and equipment that the students use.  This is what it takes if you want to go down this route.

Those of us at NCEE who have studied apprenticeship systems all over the world think a state would be well advised to look carefully at both the Singaporean and Swiss systems and then put together something that fits the local context and circumstances.  A state's delegation needs to include top business leaders, top government officials and education leaders.  Colorado put together a visit to Switzerland recently organized in this way and came back determined to build a whole new career and technical education system on the basis of what they had learned.  Because they had included the state leaders from business, government and education, they had already sold the people who would have to lead the effort and they had a common—and powerful—mage of what they were trying to create.

Some form of youth apprenticeship is the heart and soul of a great career and technical education system.  Few of us can learn what we need to know from books alone.  We need to see someone who is really good at it do it and we need to have that person critique our initial efforts and coach us all the way to excellence.  We need someone who will set a high standard for our work and who will not rest until we meet it. We need someone who is patient and demanding.  We need up-to-date equipment and instructors who have been working at the state of the art themselves and not just reading about it in professional magazines.  There is no substitute for that.  

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