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The Value of the Apprentice Model for Higher Ed

By Neal Modi | March 19, 2012 | No Comments

Amidst a growing yet still fragile economy, it is high time for the United States to look abroad to reform its education system.

For too long the American education system has been dominated by a preferred and singular education route: obtain a high school diploma, attend college or university (preferably a four-year institution), receive your degree (in whatever field you like), and enter the workforce. After all, many in the United States see this track as a guaranteed way to migrate up the social and financial ladder. Even President Barack Obama, during his 2008 campaign, routinely declared that every person in America should go, or at least have the opportunity to go, to college.

Yet, while increasing the number of people who attend college is certainly a wise, if not a necessary policy, it has limitations. While allowing more students to enter higher education can prove advantageous to those who do (and especially to those who graduate), it may not be as helpful to our economy as some would like us to believe.

Indeed, in 2010, 23.1% of U.S. youth are unemployed and among recent college graduates, the rate was 9.1%. In addition, the mounting student debt, which in 2011, topped $25,000 is making college an expensive option. Students, accordingly, are questioning whether college is even ‘worth it’.

That is why we should look abroad to reform our education system and most of all, re-evaluate the notion that a college education is the only profitable route.

Germany is widely regarded as the most stable and economically prosperous nation in the E.U. today. While others like France, Spain, and Italy battle fiscal crises of their own, Germany has remained strong in a sea of tumult. Even the New York Times, in a March 3rd expose on the German economy, remarked that “The German economy has powered far ahead France’s and the gap is widening every year.” Part of this, no doubt, is the education pathway it has charted for its citizens, especially its young people.

The German government subsidizes jobs for its youth. In the Rhineland, the government takes students out of the university route at age 16 and trains them in industrial skills, akin to an apprenticeship. At the same time, these students study for a technical degree in their future field of expertise and are paid a subsidized salary while doing so (ostensibly to incentivize retention). Most of all, “labor experts single out [this] German apprenticeship system as a major competitive advantage,” and a large reason for Germany’s economic stability.

This German system may be a wise alternative in the United States because youth unemployment, even among those who have graduated from college, is (becoming) a significant issue. As mentioned above, the youth unemployment rate in the U.S. is 23%. Further, in the U.S., the unemployment rate of black youths is more than 33%. Meanwhile, our most in-demand careers are technical jobs. However, these jobs go unmet because a lack of labor supply. Our country needs machinists, craftsmen, and technicians and it appears adopting the German system can both meet this need as well as relieve unemployment nationwide.

Sadly, in our present society, apprenticeship or technical education is considered a sign of failure. Students who enter this route, it is viewed, could not or did not want to attend college. However, it is shameful to think this. In a time when what it means to have a college degree is inflated, a return to technical education may be an entirely healthy policy. While in Virginia, schools have allowed students to simultaneously receive a high school degree and explore technical fields (in Virginia Beach for instance, a select number of students from each city high school attend a technical trade school where they learn technical skills in preparation for a career), the state and even the country has not thought seriously about this pathway. For many, it appears to be back-up or fail-safe plan, especially if college is unfeasible or unaffordable.

Changing this attitude then and spotlighting this policy’s benefits is necessary if our long-term economy is to improve.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee.


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