Education Commentary

Calling for an American System Of Apprenticeship

By Stephen F. Hamilton — June 06, 1990 8 min read

Schools are not necessarily the best places for learning. They are too prone to detach knowledge from its uses, thereby not only impairing motivation but also fundamentally distorting learning. Beyond accumulating facts, education means acquiring both an understanding of how the world works and the ability to learn the principles and skills required at a given time.

The ancient institution of apprenticeship has recently been rediscovered by researchers investigating how ordinary people solve real-world problems. Although they use the term metaphorically to describe a style of learning that unites knowledge and action, genuine apprenticeship never died; it thrives in the German-speaking countries. If the two middle quartiles of high-school students in the United States are to achieve the educational goals enunciated by President Bush and the nation’s governors, we need to invent a form of apprenticeship that fits our democratic values and our labor market.

Simply adding graduation requirements will not help students like Dave, a 16-year-old whose passions are cars, dating, and beer. These pursuits are made possible by his job at the Minit Mart. Dave has never liked school. Since the elementary grades, his teachers have told him, ''Learn this because you’ll need it when you grow up.” And because he has been placed in basic and remedial courses, the content he was supposed to learn has not changed much through the years.

Dave has decided to drop out. His older brother works for a moving company that will hire him to load and unload trucks. Dave knows his teachers are wrong. None of the jobs he has ever had or known about requires more math than he already knows; his bosses never ask him to write essays about the Civil War.

Dave is bright enough to learn when he wants to; in school, he just doesn’t see the point. If he can avoid the pitfalls of drunk driving, drug abuse, and premature parenthood, he will probably in time find a job that pays enough to support a family. He might even earn a General Educational Development diploma to qualify for further training and promotions.

But his decision to drop out saps the nation’s vitality as surely as it constrains his earnings. Growing international competition, rapidly changing technology, and drastic reductions in high-paying blue-collar jobs have placed a premium on workers with good communication skills, facility with math, analytical ability, and scientific knowledge. And as we periodically remind ourselves, democracy can only flourish among citizens who are well informed, thoughtful, and responsible--qualities more often associated with graduates than with dropouts.

These needs have been translated into demands on the schools, demands that coincide with a momentous demographic change. White males like Dave, who have traditionally constituted the majority of the labor force, will account for only 15 percent of the predicted growth in the working population this decade. To a far greater degree than in the past, the work force will include people like Dave’s girlfriend, the black kid he sees in the halls but doesn’t talk to, and many who are not in his school because they are just learning English.

While there are outstanding schools and programs that work for all young people, it is not always clear why they work or how to transplant them from demonstration sites to schools like Dave’s. In many cases, the will and the resources needed to adopt more effective methods of instruction and forms of school organization are lacking. Though we should certainly try to make all schools as strong as the best, we should also look beyond the walls of the schools to improve education.

Some of the most urgent demands on schools emanate from employers. Ironically, the nature of the labor market for young people creates barriers to meeting those demands. The service economy provides many jobs for part-time, low-skill workers. More high-school students are employed now than ever before, giving teenagers like Dave enough work experience to reject their teachers’ exhortations to learn for the future.

But the lesson Dave learned--that he does not need academic skills to hold a job--indicates how teenagers’ work experience can be a trap. The narrow range of the jobs they hold obscures from their view the broad array of technical and lower-level white-collar occupations that will be open to them when they have “matured,” provided they also have the necessary communication skills and facility with math and science.

And employers have been reluctant to hire adolescents for career-entry jobs with decent pay and benefits, training, and good possibilities for promotion. They believe--with the encouragement of a generation of research on career development--that teenagers need to have a period of exploration after high school before choosing a career.

But strong evidence suggests that American young people who do not enroll in college do not choose careers in textbook fashion; they find jobs. During their “exploration” phase, they move from job to job in response to information about better wages and working conditions, obtained primarily from friends and family, until they land in a position that lasts. The jobs often have little in common with each other or with the youth’s stated interests.

If employers need better-educated workers and if their current practices contribute to poor school performance, then they should be enlisted to help improve education. Thus far, partnerships like the Boston Compact have been the most prominent form of collaboration between educators and businesses: Employers make some of their resources available to schools and offer graduates jobs as incentives to improved academic performance. Worthwhile as such efforts are, employers must consider a deeper form of partnership: using workplaces as learning environments for young people.

The best-developed model for this approach is German apprenticeship. In West Germany, this model is the predominant form of upper-secondary education, enrolling more than 60 percent of the 16- to 18-year-old population. Apprentices typically serve for three years, attending school one or two days per week and spending the balance of their time learning at work.

With its roots in the medieval crafts, the system was transformed around the turn of the century to suit an industrial economy. Clerical, administrative, and sales occupations are included along with manual and technical trades.

In response to the same pressures that are driving American firms, German apprenticeship is currently undergoing another transformation. Recognizing that apprentices can no longer be equipped at the beginning of their careers with skills sufficient for a lifetime of productivity, leading firms increasingly view apprenticeship as a foundation for lifelong learning rather than terminal training. They expect their apprentices to acquire academic and job skills fundamental to a range of tasks. Apprentices who qualify as skilled workers are able not only to assume productive roles immediately but also to learn new or higher-level knowledge and skills, either at work or in related vocational schools.

Technicians in large firms, for example, can advance to the stage of master and then to engineer by passing examinations following either part-time or full-time study. Selected apprentices trained in management by the companies are actually favored over college graduates for promotions and further training. Some internationally known German corporations are headed by former apprentices.

The German system cannot simply be transplanted to this country, but it proves that learning need not be confined to schools. It also demonstrates that young people like Dave, who in Germany would be viewed as “school weary” apprentices, can learn if given appropriate motivation and opportunity, and can, while still in their teens, assume “adult” responsibilities that American employers are unwilling to offer.

An American system of apprenticeship would have to be as diverse as our population and would have to satisfy our democratic values by offering varied points of termination and transfer to further schooling. We are not likely to embrace a rigid institution or one precluding the option of pursuing a college degree.

Several homegrown models suggest ways of putting the principles of German apprenticeship to work in the United States. Career academies, for example, are schools-within-schools organized around a particular career cluster. The Academies of Finance, initiated in New York City with support from American Express and now operating in other cities in collaboration with several firms, use the financial-services industry as a focus. In addition to regular academic courses, career academies offer students specialized, career-related courses and supervised work experience.

But career academies, cooperative education, and other exemplary programs in the United States enroll relatively small numbers. Where Germany and other countries shine in contrast to the United States is in integrating a wide range of school-related work experiences into a coherent, comprehensive system and involving vast numbers of youths.

The development of such a system here would benefit many young people in the transition from school to career. Because centralized solutions requiring substantial federal money are not feasible, we should begin by expanding programs that already perform this function on a small scale. Horizontal expansion would provide more places in those programs. Vertical expansion would offer age-appropriate work-based learning experiences beginning no later than middle school, so that teenagers could move logically from exploratory activities to longterm training in a specific career area.

Such a program will not be built in a year or two--but if we fail to strengthen the connections between work and learning, we will pay a heavy price in lost productivity and wasted lives.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 1990 edition of Education Week as Calling for an American System Of Apprenticeship