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Creating Apprenticeship System Will Be Tough, Advocates Admit

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WASHINGTON--President Clinton's proposal to spend more than $1.2 billion over the next five years on youth apprenticeships aimed at moving young people into skilled jobs has added momentum to an already popular idea.

But the task of creating a high-quality system that combines school and work-site training remains a daunting one, many of the participants at a meeting here last week of representatives from 20 states that are working to develop such programs acknowledged.

"It's a moment of opportunity, in the sense that a lot is ready to go,'' said Hilary Pennington, the president of a nonprofit group called Jobs for the Future, which convened the meeting. "But these are really very long-term issues. This excitement isn't going to give birth to a full-blown youth-apprenticeship system in the next two years.''

And in remarks to the group, Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin cautioned, "I think it's clear this is the time for action. What is not clear is precisely how to direct it.''

Youth apprenticeship is a central component of many European training systems. The hope of U.S. advocates is to provide students in grades 11 and above with a rigorous, multi-year program that combines paid work and on-the-job training with related classroom instruction.

At the end of that period, students would earn both a widely recognized certificate of their occupational skills and some form of postsecondary degree or credit, in addition to a high school diploma.

The goal is to produce young people trained in a specific industry, such as metalworking or banking, who would have the option of either heading for college or entering high-wage jobs with opportunities for career advancement.

In contrast, many Americans now drift from one low-wage, dead-end job to another during their late teens and early 20's. And the earnings of non-college-educated workers are declining precipitously.

A high school graduate without any postsecondary education today earns an average of about 15 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than in 1979, and about 60 percent less than a college graduate.

According to Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, the United States is creating a "two-tier society'' of high wages for the "problem-solvers who work in the glass and steel towers of our major cities, and low wages for the unskilled who work at street level.''

Youth apprenticeship, Mr. Reich asserted in a speech to the group, could provide a major avenue for enlarging the middle class by creating a new tier of "worker technicians and paraprofessionals'' without college degrees.

'A Sense of Direction'

In the past few years, five states--Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Oregon, and Wisconsin--have enacted legislation to create youth-apprenticeship systems. Lawmakers in as many as 10 other states, including California, Texas, and Vermont, are expected to consider such bills this year.

At least eight youth-apprenticeship bills were introduced in the last session of Congress, and many of those proposals are expected to be revived in the coming weeks.

But while most observers agree that the time is ripe for action--and that the broad principles of an apprenticeship system are emerging--they caution that no one model has gained widespread acceptance. Both the design and governance of such systems vary widely.

In addition, serious hurdles remain for such programs to be adopted on a broad scale. These include a dearth of incentives for employers to participate; the schools' current focus on college-bound students; a need to create new governance structures that encompass labor, business, government, and education; and a lack of widely accepted skill standards that would enable a youth apprentice trained in one state to find work in another.

The trick is to design a federal initiative "that's sufficiently flexible not to deter innovation,'' Mr. Reich said, "but that at least provides a sense of direction.''

That view was echoed by state leaders, who stressed that federal dollars should be used to help create an enduring system of youth apprenticeships, and not just a series of short-lived demonstration projects.

"The danger in America right now,'' said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover of Wisconsin, "is we're going to have a whole lot of victory gardens, a whole lot of models, a whole lot of prototypes, and no system.''

'Not a Blueprint'

As part of the economic plan he released last month, President Clinton included $243 million in fiscal 1995, rising to $500 million in fiscal 1998, to help create a national youth-apprenticeship system. The program would be run jointly by the Labor and Education departments.

The President has also proposed $27 million in fiscal 1994 for a targeted youth-apprenticeship tax credit that employers could use to help defray some program costs.

During his remarks, Mr. Reich provided one model of how a youth-apprenticeship system might work. But, he stressed, "This is not a blueprint.''

Under the system described by Mr. Reich, all students would have achieved basic literacy and numeracy skills by the 10th grade. Students would then spend the last two years of high school, and a third year of "professional-technical'' education, in a combination of classroom learning and on-the-job internships.

At the end of the three years, students would have both a national certificate in their chosen field of competence and the flexibility to continue higher education or enter the workforce directly.

The federal role, he suggested, could range from helping to develop skill standards for broad occupational clusters or industry groups to providing seed money for experimentation.

The network of 20 states formed by Jobs for the Future plans to put together a white paper based on experiences at the state level to help shape the federal debate.

"I think it is critically important to get the experience from the field informing this,'' Ms. Pennington said.

During the meeting, participants suggested that the federal government focus on helping develop such systems at the state level.

Skill Standards

Meeting participants also noted that efforts to create skill standards are proceeding rapidly within individual states and at the national level and need to be coordinated and accelerated.

Such standards could form the basis for developing curriculum, training staff, certifying training sites, and credentialing apprentices. But it is not clear who should develop them, or the extent to which they should cover broad occupational fields rather than specific jobs.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, is expected to press for legislation to create a national board that would set skill standards for specific industries.

In testimony before the Senate committee last week, Mr. Reich endorsed the idea of creating such a board. (See related story, this page.)

'Essential Elements'

During a meeting with Congressional staff members, the state leaders said they would welcome stringent outcome measures for youth-apprenticeship programs, including the percentage of participants who actually receive certificates or are employed at high-wage jobs.

But participants also cautioned against heavy-handed federal mandates. "There's a huge difference among states, and I have a fear of the federal government driving us in ways that will hurt our flexibility,'' said Alan Weisberg, a consultant from California.

Many at the meeting suggested that Washington should focus on the broad principles that should undergird a youth-apprenticeship system, rather than on specifying such design features as which state agency should house the programs.

Jobs for the Future, for example, has identified six "essential elements'' of youth apprenticeship. They are:

  • Employers who provide paid work experience and guided learning at the worksite;
  • Integration of academic and vocational learning in the schools;
  • Coordination and integration of learning in school and in the workplace;
  • Programs that link high school and postsecondary education and are at least two years in duration;
  • Widely recognized credentials of both academic and occupational competency for those who complete such programs; and
  • Governance arrangements that include a broad coalition of institutional partners.

Matter of Definition

The Administration's interest has highlighted the difficulty of moving from a handful of fledgling programs to a widely accessible system.

To enable 15 percent of Americans ages 16 to 20 to participate in an apprenticeship would require one of every five employers nationwide to offer at least one youth-apprentice slot, Ms. Pennington noted.

"That is hard,'' she observed, "and that is just 15 percent of our kids.''

Even the term "youth apprenticeship'' has become a source of tension. Labor organizations and existing registered apprenticeship programs, which typically train workers in their late 20's, are afraid that a system of youth apprenticeships could open the door to nonunion employees learning the same skills and reduce the prestige and value of their programs.

Moreover, Mr. Reich noted, a "school-to-work transition program depends on the reorganization of work'' to provide jobs for more highly skilled employees.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley added that youth apprenticeship is closely tied to "radically rethinking and restructuring the high school years.''

"Most young people,'' he said, "can only be motivated to take academically challenging courses ... if they can see a connection between the classroom knowledge and its application in the wider world.''

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