How History Explains America's Struggle to Revive Apprenticeships

"Donald Trump is the latest in a long line of presidents to announce ambitious plans to slash the cost of college and create millions of new apprenticeships. But, as I argue in a forthcoming history on the 19th-century origins of student debt, American students have repeatedly rejected attempts to mainstream vocational education for over a century because 'career courses' often preclude them from aspirational jobs in technology, finance, law, and medicine," Greg Ferenstein writes for the Brookings Institution's Brown Center Chalkboard.

"If Americans are to embrace apprenticeships, I believe coveted Silicon Valley companies, financial institutions, hospitals, and law firms must hire graduates who train outside of full-time academic programs.

Indeed, the director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony Carneval, doubts that Donald Trump can meet his apprenticeship goal given that 'the model in America is 'high school to Harvard.''

At one time, America's most celebrated citizens trained entirely outside of college, such as Abraham Lincoln, who studied to be a lawyer with the help of local attorney offices. But, as college became the default path to top professions in the 20th century, apprenticeships fell out of favor with America's upwardly mobile culture.

In order to understand a way forward, I think it helps to understand that it's possible for a country to have a system of apprenticeships for all types of careers and also investigate the historical reasons why American high skill professions shifted away from apprenticeships in the first place.

There's an important reason why apprenticeships are becoming a priority for so many leading policymakers: They have the potential to expand access to skills training for high-demand occupations and simultaneously ease student debt. Switzerland, for instance, is hailed as the 'gold standard' of vocational learning, where roughly two thirds of higher education students work and learn at the same time, graduating with little to no debt.

Though many countries have popular apprentice systems, Stanford Economics Professor Eric Hanusek finds that among all European nations, Swiss students end up earning the most compared to their university-bound peers. This is why Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is basing a new statewide initiative for high schoolers explicitly on the Swiss model.

Experts tell me that Switzerland's apprenticeship system is unique in its ability to be a career path for the most prestigious careers. One of the directors of IBM's Zurich manufacturing labwhere they design things like next-generation supercomputers, told me that he prefers a mix of apprentices and academically trained students. This particular IBM manager holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and started out as an apprentice himself. IBM's lab could hire from the top universities in Europe, yet chooses at least half to come from Switzerland's unique work-and-learn background.

But, this begs the question: If apprenticeships can be so great, why did America abandon them in the first place?"

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Publication Date: 6/11/2018

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