Can't Find Skilled Workers? Start an Apprentice Program

January 21, 2014

One key element to a competitive workforce almost entirely overlooked in the United States is apprenticeships. American businesses typically want someone else -- trade schools, community colleges, universities or even the federal government -- to train their future employees. If potential future job seekers haven't been provided with the training they need, many businesses expect job seekers to take all the responsibility on themselves, often taking on serious debt without any guarantee of future employment, says Peter Downs, the editor of St. Louis Construction News & Review, a construction-trade magazine.

This sense of entitlement contrasts sharply with attitudes in some of the world's most competitive countries, where businesses are highly involved in preparing future workers through apprenticeships.

  • In Switzerland, 70 percent of young people age 15-19 apprentice in hundreds of occupations, including baking, banking, health care, retail trade and clerical careers.
  • In Germany, 65 percent of youth are in apprenticeships; in Austria 55 percent.
  • All three countries have youth unemployment rates less than half of America's 16 percent.

Last year, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Spain all asked Germany to help them set up similar systems. In 1997, Britain introduced a program called Modern Apprenticeships, based on the German model, and enrollment has increased every year.

  • It now stands at 858,900.
  • In 2012, the United Kingdom added apprenticeship programs for commercial pilots, lawyers, engineers and accountants that are considered the equivalent of a college education.

The United States is headed in the opposite direction.

  • The number of apprenticeship programs has fallen by one-third in the last decade.
  • With only 330,578 registered apprentices in 2013, the United States had less than 40 percent of the number in Britain, a country one-fifth as populous.

Some industries are starting to recognize the benefits of apprenticeships; however, to the extent that the American business community is involved in education reform, they are typically investing in faddish reforms such as banning tenure, that, even if passed, would do little to ensure the competitiveness of the nation's workforce. If this same money and effort went into pushing for a two-track education system -- college or apprenticeship -- it would do far more to produce students prepared to compete in the 21st century economy.

Source: Peter Downs, "Can't Find Skilled Workers? Start an Apprentice Program," Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2014.

 

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