Happening Today: Education Week Leadership Symposium. Learn more and register.

School-Work Nexus: If Any Road Can Take You There, You Don’t Know Where You’re

By Stephen F. Hamilton — September 30, 1992 5 min read

Laid-off auto workers taking minimum-wage jobs--if they can get them--have become a symbol of the economic distress of our times. Now they are being joined by middle managers and other white-collar workers, sometimes laid off by profitable companies that are restructuring in anticipation of tougher competition in the future.

Unemployment among adult heads of households clearly deserves our greatest concern, but it should not obscure the long-term consequences of recession and restructuring on the next generation. If adults with education, skills, and experience cannot find jobs, what can a teenager just out of high school expect?

It was hard enough during the good times. Between 1973 and 1986, the real earnings of male high school graduates between the ages of 20 and 24 declined by 28 percent. For dropouts, the loss was 42 percent. This selective depression resulted in large part from the disappearance of well-paid factory jobs that previously absorbed such workers. But it also reflected a new strategy on the part of employers: using age as a proxy for such desirable worker attributes as reliability and diligence. Employers with career-entry jobs offering security, benefits, and career ladders reserved them for adults in their mid-twenties and older. Recent high school graduates, along with high school dropouts and high school students working part time have been relegated to the secondary labor market, typified by food service and retail sales.

It may be rational for each employer to treat young applicants as unfit for serious responsibility, but when most do, the resulting pattern has disastrous consequences for everyone. Because high school graduates’ jobs require no great academic skills, their employers do not use school records when hiring. As a result, academic achievement in high school is not rewarded in the labor market. Not until employers consider them adults do young people without college degrees have a chance at jobs that require skill in algebra, chemistry, written expression, or analytical thinking. By then it is too late for many to make up for what they missed. For these young people, the connection between school and work is opaque.

Our global competitors treat young people differently when they first leave school to enter the full-time labor market. In the German-speaking countries and in Denmark, the majority of young people move from school to work by way of an intermediate stage, apprenticeship, which systematically combines the two. Apprentices acquire specific work-related skills both on the job and in school. Working on demanding tasks with adults, they learn that some, at least, of what they are taught in school really is important. And they recognize that if they perform well at work and in school they will be rewarded with “adult’’ jobs and adult wages when they are 18 or 19 years old.

Apprenticeship, then, makes the school-work nexus transparent to adolescents. They can “see through’’ the system from where they are to where they would like to be and identify the steps that will take them there. This transparency motivates young Germans and Danes to work hard in school and on the job and encourages them to plan for the future. The opaque school-work nexus in the United States stifles motivation and discourages planning.

But transparency has a cost. Regulations and examinations governing occupational certification serve as milestones on the path from education to career, but they also constitute barriers to movement from one occupation to another. The result is rigidity or impermeability. A German apprentice auto mechanic in his third year explained to me that he had decided to switch to auto-body repair because it was “more creative’’ than mechanical maintenance. To qualify, he would have to complete a second three-year apprenticeship, with no credit for all he had learned about auto mechanics and associated academic subjects such as math and physics.

Americans have no tolerance for such rigidity. Because we emphasize every person’s responsibility to make his or her own way in the world, and value every employer’s right to hire whom he or she pleases, we place few formal barriers between people and jobs below the level of the professions; licensure is generally required only for occupations related to health and safety. Our system is highly permeable. It allows, indeed encourages, frequent moves from one employer to another, from one occupation to another.

A permeable school-work nexus matches the dynamic American labor market, which adapts rapidly, if ruthlessly, to changing economic conditions. But permeability is precisely what makes the connections between school and work opaque for young people. If any road can take you there, you don’t know where you’re going!

Denmark, Switzerland, and other European countries have taken dramatic steps to increase the permeability of their already transparent systems, notably by consolidating related training occupations and building more bridges between apprenticeship and further schooling. The United States should work from the opposite direction, increasing transparency while retaining enough permeability to match our values and our economic system. An American-style youth-apprenticeship system must be more flexible than traditional European systems. Most of all it must be tied directly to the completion of high school and entrance into higher education.

Demonstration programs sponsored by the U.S. Labor Department, by New York, Arkansas, and other states, and by foundations are just getting under way to test this idea. They offer four-year apprenticeships spanning two years of high school and two years of community college leading to careers at the technician level. A large-scale system of youth apprenticeship would meet employers’ growing demand for highly skilled and flexible workers who are capable of lifelong learning. It would also provide high school students who believe school is unimportant and unreal a clear view of a desirable and attainable future.

Stephen F. Hamilton is professor and chairman of the department of human development and family studies at Cornell University and the author of Apprenticeship for Adulthood: Preparing Youth for the Future (Free Press, 1990).

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 edition of Education Week as School-Work Nexus: If Any Road Can Take You There, You Don’t Know Where You’re