Demands of Information Age Revive Old Idea of Apprenticeships

By Lonnie Harp — June 05, 1991 19 min read

As the demands of jobs at his company’s chicken-processing plant have eclipsed the knowledge that comes with most high-school diplomas, Paul Whitley of Russellville, Ark., has been looking for a way to make sure he gets good workers.

“Most of the kids coming out of high school have relatively low problem-solving skills; they have poor math skills, poor reading skills, and poor communication skills,” said Mr. Whitley, vice president of training and development for Tyson Foods Inc.

“We’re on a collision course as the labor market shrinks and the need for more and better skills increases,” he warned.

The dilemma facing Tyson Foods has led the company to explore an old idea that lately has begun to seem new: apprenticeships for aspiring skilled workers.

Tyson is one of several Arkansas firms participating in a new, state-supported pilot project that will enroll high-school students, beginning in the 11th grade, in apprenticeships combining academic and on-the-job training.

Reflecting a surge of interest by policymakers, business groups, and academic experts, apprenticeship efforts now taking shape in a number of states and communities aim to plug gaps in current education and employment programs.

The experiments under way or being contemplated tend to follow one of two broad approaches: the traditional American apprenticeship model, which provides rigorous workplace and classroom training for entry-level workers, beginning either right after high school or some years later; and the widely praised German system, which begins business-sponsored training for students while they are still in secondary school.

Regardless of the version of apprenticeship being advocated, a persistent theme sounded by proponents is that the U.S. education system is failing the “forgotten half” of young people who enter the job market directly from high school. Supporters also see a direct link between such programs and attempts to restore the competitive edge to American business.

“It’s incredible how many people are persuaded by the argument that a lack of a system for the middle half of the youth cohort is a serious disadvantage for the American economy and American kids,” said Richard Kazis, director of work-based learning at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit employment and training organization based in Massachusetts.

While apprenticeship pilot projects began appearing in the early 1980’s, much of the impetus for the current wave of initiatives comes from a report issued a year ago by the National Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. In “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages,” the privately sponsored panel strongly criticized the level of preparation being provided for the vast majority of the country’s “front line” workers. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

Since the report was issued, about a dozen states have set up task forces or taken further steps aimed at improving the school-to-work transition. In addition to Arkansas, statewide apprenticeship models are being implemented in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Many others are on the verge of a statewide effort.

A plan under consideration in Oregon, for example, would require students after the 10th grade to choose between a college-preparatory curriculum and a vocational- training program, including apprenticeships. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)

Meanwhile, local apprenticeship systems are being established across the nation, from Binghamton, N.Y., to Chicago to Oakland, Calif.

At the national level, both the Ad ministration and influential federal lawmakers have seized on the apprenticeship idea and related issues of students’ readiness for work. Among other efforts:

The U.S. Labor Department has pushed for a broader apprenticeship system since creating a new office of work-based learning last year, and its Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills plans to release later this month its findings on the classroom skills needed as a founda tion for a wide range of occupations.

Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, plans this week to reintroduce a bill similar to legislation he proposed last year that would create a series of pilot, German-style apprenticeship programs.

A proposal for a national system of apprenticeships, to be created jointly by schools, businesses, and labor unions, was included in a domestic-policy resolution adopted last month by the Democratic Leadership Council, a group led by Senator Nunn, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and other politically moderate Democrats.0

The chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, plans to introduce a bill focusing on the school-to-work transition as part of a package of education bills responding to President Bush’s school-improvement legislation.

“I have been quite surprised with how widely accepted this kind of discussion has become in the past two years,” said James Van Erden, administrator of the Labor Department’s office of work-based learning.

Proponents of apprenticeship plans argue that a formal program of work- based learning has the potential to: offer direction to students who pursue a general-track education with little focus on employment or college; help schools adapt their programs to meet increasing skill demands; and provide a much-needed training avenue for growing service occupations apart from the blue-collar trades in which apprenticeships traditionally have been concentrated.

Still, observers say, several troublesome questions remain, most notably Americans’ deeply ingrained reluctance to ask students at an early age to commit to a higher-education or job path.

Other obstacles they cite include finding a niche for new apprenticeship programs that does not overlap with the current vocational-education system or erode existing union- dominated apprenticeships; enticing enough businesses to move such pro grams beyond their pilot sites; and convincing school officials that they are responsible for ensuring job readiness as well as a general education.$But apprenticeship advocates be gin with the argument that the cur rent education system graduates too many unprepared students. Researchers have found that fewer than one-eighth of the students who complete high school on a general studies track begin work with any job-specific training. Furthermore, supporters of the concept argue, both the American and German apprenticeship models, despite certain dissimilarities, show strong positive results.

“We really have looked at it, and people who have been through apprenticeship are much better preL pared,” said Garrison J. Moore, re search director for the National Alliance of Business, which has developed a job-performance-learning system based on the American apprenticeship model. More than 250,000 American workers each year already receive training in apprenticeship programs run jointly by labor unions and employers and registered with the Labor Department. The programs often last more than three years, and competition is usually steep for the openings, which correspond with local labor demand. An other 50,000 apprentices are employed by the military.

American apprenticeship programs are concentrated in the construction and manufacturing industries, where nearly three of every four apprentices train. Of the remainder, occupations ranging from firefighter to interior designer have registered apprenticeship programs.

Existing programs typically draw from a pool of workers, often in their late 20’s, who have already logged some work experience. Such workers then spend several years in apprenticeship training, which culminates with a credential recognized throughout the occupation.

The National Alliance of Business, which has developed several pilot work-based-learning programs under a Labor Department grant, has drawn heavily from the American model for training young, out-of-school workers.

The N.A.B. program combines on-the-job experience with classroom lessons, and pairs trainees with an experienced worker. Unlike the traditional programs, however, the N.A.B. model and many other pilot efforts have a much shorter time frame and are geared to service occupations, from child-care provider to bank teller. (See related story, page 19.)

Mr. Moore said the N.A.B.'s job-performance-learning project was designed to structure work experience “so that you get the full benefit in the shortest amount of time.”

“Since it is employer-driven, it meets the employer’s requirements,” he said.

In contrast to American apprenticeships, the German system serves about 1.7 million youths, beginning in their teenage years while they are still enrolled in school. The students generally spend four days at work and one day in a technical school each week for three years.

The German programs are coordinated with about 500,000 employers and reach more than two-thirds of that nation’s young people, compared with the American programs, which reach about 2 percent of the nation’s youths several years after they have finished school.

School-to-work models derived from German apprenticeships are advanced as a way of structuring a teenager’s first taste of the work world.$ Advocates of the new apprenticeship models argue that most of the workers and students they target hold or are headed for high-school diplomas, but often finish school unprepared for the demands of the workplace and without ever seeing a connection between learning and work. “High schools and people in high schools pretend that everyone is a candidate for college,” said Mr. Kazis of Jobs for the Future.

“There is a world of work and there’s a world of school,” he said, “and they are not connected, they are not discussed, and they are not linked.”

Many American business leaders who make the same argument point to the school-to-work link as a critical component in the overarching achievements of German industry. The close tie between school and workplace, and the promise it holds for improving the performance of U.S. industry, has also won the attention of lawmakers, particularly Senator Nunn. The Georgia Democrat last year added an amendment to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act calling for a General Accounting Office study of the German training system.

In addition, the Senator last year proposed a $250-million, five-year apprenticeship demonstration program. The bill called for development of curricula and occupational competencies, funding of other research efforts, and financing of projects adapting the German model.

Under last year’s Nunn plan, which aides said the Senator would introduce in similar form late this week, students in the 7th through 9th grades would begin career exploration with job sampling and visits to various businesses. In the 10th grade, students would apply and interview for apprenticeships with local employers. In the 11th and 12th grades, youths would participate in on-the-job training, which would equal about 30 percent of the 11th grader’s class time and 70 percent of school time by the senior year.

After graduation, the apprentice ships would include community-college courses.

The revival of interest in apprenticeships reflects the evolving nature of work itself, observers point out.

Apprenticeship, a medieval training strategy initially designed to asH0 sure both a seasoned worker in a particular craft or trade and a high- quality product, was overshadowed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The new emphasis was on the need for strong bodies to man assembly lines and operate machines.

But the late-20th-century rise of high technology and automation, coupled with a competition-driven emphasis on quality and flexibility, has raised the premium on workers’ job mastery for a new range of occupations.

“There is more science and less art; more formal knowledge of math and writing; more ‘soft’ skills such as the ability to work with others; and less manual dexterity,” according to a report by the N.A.B.

“This is a new form of apprentice ship,” Mr. Moore of the business alliance said. “It’s a qualitatively different kind of work. In the crafts, it’s still primarily hand and eye, but what we’re looking at is a much broader area of skill.”

Officials at the Labor Department and others spearheading the apprenticeship resurgence would like to see the training model spread among technical workers such as machinists, but also expand into growing service industries such as health care, retail merchandising, child care, and banking.

“For bank tellers now, it’s not how fast you can handle a transaction, it’s how fast you understand the problem and how you react to it,” Mr. Moore said. “Most of the back work and handwork has been or can be automated.”

“What happens with automation over time,” he observed, “is that you free people up to work at higher skill levels.”

Such increasing skills demands prompted Mr. Whitley of Tyson Foods in Arkansas to take a leading role in a $3-million apprenticeship effort approved earlier this year by the state legislature.

“We continue really to focus on the biggest need of all, which is people with good basic human skills,” he said, pointing to such attributes as teamwork, problem solving, and decision-making.

“One of the things that happens in a food plant is you’re producing the product at a rapid rate,” he explained. “When one thing goes wrong, a lot of things go wrong."0

The food-processing industry will be one focus of the Arkansas pro gram, which will also establish pilot school-to-work programs in fields including metalworking and allied health occupations, ranging from emergency medic to radiology technician. Officials may also create an “entrepreneurship” apprenticeship n response to the state’s large segment of self-employed workers.$

The Arkansas projects, expected to serve a total of up to 250 students, will become formal this fall and may start recruiting 10th graders early next year, according to Ron Shertzer, program manager for the vocational- and technical-education division of the state education department. Officials expect to establish five to seven sites with the funds, which will be split to expand existing registered-apprenticeship programs.

Jobs for the Future is coordinating the project for the state.

Officials have not set a pay scale for the apprentices, but Mr. Shertzer said students would be paid from the beginning of the program. He said school counselors tapped to identify the potential apprentices would look for “students who aren’t sure about where they want to go.”

For those students, the program will offer a chance to pursue both skilled work and post-secondary education. “We want them to shoot for an associate’s degree,” Mr. Shertzer said.

What some see as the Arkansas program’s strength is a concern for others, who worry that parents will perceive the early concentration on work as another--and stricter-- version of academic tracking.

“One of the concerns that we are wrestling with is how many 11th graders are convinced as to what they want to do,” Mr. Whitley of Tyson Foods acknowledged.

“Many folks feel that by pulling people out of school too early and giving them skills in one specific job, you are limiting their options,” said Jane McDonald-Pines, assistant director of the AFL-CIO’s Human Resources Development Institute.$"You are tracking young people very early,” she said.

“That may work in Germany,” she added, but it may not sit well with American parents. Other labor leaders question whether the apprenticeship adaptations have gone far enough in winning support beyond that of policymakers and educators.

“The concept is good; there is no doubt about that,” said Mike Bruton, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “But there are two elements that are missing--not only the involvement of business, but also the involvement of workers.”

“It takes a true partnership to put something like this together,’' he added. “Until they decide they want that to happen, it won’t move.”

The connection between the new apprenticeships and the established American training system is viewed as a delicate issue, as policymakers seek to shed what they see as the bruised, blue-collar image of both existing apprenticeships and vocational education.

“The word ‘apprenticeship’ does not have a positive connotation in many people’s minds,” Mr. Moore of the National Alliance of Business said.

“This means changing educators’ thinking about where kids go,” added Mr. Van Erden of the Labor Department. “We want people saying to their kids, ‘Here’s another option that may be more interesting to you than going to college.”’

“We want [the apprenticeship model] to be a high-value, high-career path program where we say, ‘If you work hard in school, we’ll put you in this kind of program,”’ continued Mr. Van Erden, whose office was formed by combining the department’s displaced-worker training programs and its bureau of apprenticeship and training.

“I’ve seen some vocational-education programs that come very close to what we’re defining,” he said, “but most vocational programs teach blueprint reading, for example, in a generic sense. [Apprenticeship] is more of a work environment.”

While some have feared that apprenticeship efforts could be viewed as a competitor to vocational education, Betsy Brand, the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said that many vocational administrators view apprenticeship training as a complementary program.

“There is agreement that there can be many kinds of [vocational-education] programs in models that go from being totally in the classroom to being totally in the workplace,” Ms. Brand said. “What everybody wants to see is accountability and private-sector involvement.”

Officials from the American Vocational Association agreed, adding that some vocational programs already incorporate apprenticeship programs.

“This is not something that is startlingly new,” Dale Hudelson, an A.V.A. spokesman, said. “But the field certainly welcomes any help it can get to expand training opportunities.”

Stephen F. Hamilton, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University and the director of the Binghamton, N.Y., youth-apprenticeship program, agreed that the new wave of school-to-work programs seems to be moving in a direction that main stream vocational-education pro grams also are pursuing.

“People in vocational education are recognizing a need to connect more strongly with academic education and make that distinction less sharp,” Mr. Hamilton said. “The new impetus comes more from employers who say the most important skills are academic skills, and that the most important one is being able to continue learning.”

While apprenticeships aimed at general-track students blur the line between traditional schooling and vocational programs, the Cornell professor added that “it makes sense to see [apprenticeship] as part of the vocational-education umbrella.”

“We shouldn’t and don’t need to set up another separate system,” he argued.

The conception of apprenticeship as another aspect of vocational education is one that many of its supporters do not envision.

Mr. Hudelson of the A.V.A. and others argue, however, that many obstacles remain to building a wide spread apprenticeship system.

“It’s not the panacea that every one thinks it is,” Mr. Hudelson said. “Those students who are interested are those who know very precisely what they want to do with their lives.”

“It is a good thing for some students,” he said. “But even if you could suddenly make it totally available, it wouldn’t solve all of the problems.”

Ms. Brand of the Education Department cited a need to win greater business support, noting that all successful apprenticeship systems are founded on wide industry participation.

“If you look at the models in Germany, you have to have an intensely committed private sector to have a
successful program,” she said. “If you don’t have that, then you don’t have a system, but just a few model programs here and there.”

Apprenticeship advocates acknowledge that the movement faces a number of challenges, and concede that efforts to date largely amount to local experiments to learn what works best.

“This is a huge country, and if you added up all of the programs that are going on and the number of young people involved, it would not be impressive,” said Samuel Halperin, study director for the William T. Grant Foundation’s Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. “There are a lot of little pieces, but we’re not at a stage where I would call it a massive movement.”

The current pilot and demonstration projects, others suggest, must work through such issues as business participation, the role of labor, tracking, and the relationship with vocational education before new apprenticeship blueprints can be sold on a large scale.’

“If this is going to move from being marginal, these are things you’re going to have to grapple with,” Mr. Kazis of Jobs for the Future said.

“There are a lot of values that - cross here, and that’s why it’s so hard to solve,” said Fred E. Voss, / technical-training director for the American Society of Training and Development, a trade association 2 of corporate recruiters and training officials.

Mr. Voss said the apprenticeship 5 issue also revives questions about 6 whether schools are responsible for 7 preparing students for jobs or simply 8 for providing a solid academic back ground.

But some observers say apprenticeships reflect a renewed focus on students not bound for college that was emphasized by the Grant Foundation’s 1988 report “The Forgotten Half,” which described the plight of students not preparing for college.

“It really changed what people were focusing on,” Mr. Kazis said. “There was less of a focus solely on dropouts and a recognition of the serious lack of services for people much higher up the queue.”

Apprenticeship advocates are optimistic that their programs can win support, in part because the skills they offer match up with the needs of industry.

Proponents maintain that the most popular corporate training themes--remediation of basic skills, team-building, customer satisfaction, and lifelong upgrading of skills--are the hallmarks of the ideal apprenticeship model.

Mr. Voss of the astd predicted that the age-old training program may be due for a comeback.

“It lost a lot of clout as the years have gone by, because it was pretty much controlled by the unions,” Mr. Voss said. But with the recent revisions by the Labor Department and others, he argued, the new apprenticeship models “are much more attractive.”

Mr. Voss predicted that, if the new apprenticeship models can begin to answer the logistical questions, their appeal is likely to grow.

“It’s not at an early stage so much as it’s at an incomplete stage,” he explained, “in that I don’t think anybody feels like they have the solu tion.” “It’s still an idea that has to be sold,” he said, “but it’s growing again.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Demands of Information Age Revive Old Idea of Apprenticeships