"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Something Else That Needs To Be On The Table - Apprenticeships

College and Career Readiness... college and career readiness. It's the new mantra of education reform. Everything public education does must answer the question of whether it addresses college or career readiness. If you examine what the reformers and the administration are talking about you realize that it is really only about the second goal. They believe college is also about career readiness, just more lucrative careers. So if that really is the goal, then anything that gets us to that end point should be on the table, including apprenticeships. But ask the education elite or the administration what they think of apprenticeships and the most you will likely get is lip service about how they can be good "for some people."

Intellectual Takeout said that apprenticeships today, "might be viewed as an undignified and outdated way to escape the college grind, while for others it might trigger a romanticized memory of reading Johnny Tremain in the fifth grade."

In the past they were embraced as the path to a career in a particular field, be it a craft occupation or trade, or  a profession which requires licensing in order to practice. An apprentice or protege was trained while working for a business or mentor, in exchange for their continuing labor for an agreed period after they have demonstrated competence in the basic skill set. More advance apprenticeships may have required additional formal or theoretical education at a local technical college, vocational schools or university, with the apprentice still being paid by the employer often over a period of 4–6 years.

Somewhere along the line, probably the production line, they became outdated and looked down upon. Mass production did away with the need, or expectation, of a hand crafted quality product so there was less need of craftsmen. Since we had less people making things, we needed something to do with our high school graduates so we sent them to college. Once we had exposed them to higher level thinking and a broad range of subjects, we could hardly expect them to go back and work on a menial trade, could we? The apprenticeship became the symbol of an old economy which we had moved beyond.

But the path of the apprentice, being paid while learning a skill, seems a more logical path to a career than the current system where the student stays in school full time, taking and paying for courses not directly related to the field they are interested in, in the name of being a more well rounded graduate. Well rounded, maybe, but behind those who have already begun working in the field in terms of practical knowledge, and behind those already working who have been earning money instead of accumulating debt.

So why don't we hear more about apprenticeships? There remains opposition to them out there and some of it comes from unexpected sources.

Back in 2010 the president Barack Obama, through the Labor Department, told college students, with unemployment for their demographic at 26%, that they could not volunteer their time for corporate internships. He would not let them participate in a free market exchange of time for valuable and relevant job skills that just might get them off the unemployment line. The administration only recognizes cold hard cash and, in their view of fairness, did not want these kids being free labor. This shows a complete ignorance about the value of apprenticeships or internships, where something more valuable and permanent can be gained for the student's time - real world experience plus valuable connections through networking in the workplace and building relationships for future careers and opportunities.

Unions still have apprenticeship programs that are very tightly controlled. Most states have a Division of Apprenticeship Standards which lays out the terms of apprenticeship and usually requires in school training in addition to on-site time. Most often the student pays for that instruction. Anyone entering into these programs must register with the state.

Most apprenticeships require a high school diploma to start, although some high schools do have apprenticeship programs that count towards a degree, but are usually unpaid with no obligation on the part of the student or the sponsoring company to any future relationship.

Something that makes both an apprenticeship program and a classroom education work is the one on one relationship of mentor and mentee. A financial planner wrote, "If I had spent 4 years working as an apprentice to a Certified Financial Planner, rather than in business school, I would be a better financier than any graduate." Having someone focused on passing on knowledge and seeing a student succeed is a key ingredient to both an apprenticeship and a general education. Unfortunately with our mass production model of public education, this relationship is rare and could be a reason for our failure rate.

In order to be truly successful, apprenticeship programs need some help from the government. Businesses or professionals who take on apprentices take on risk. Knowingly bringing someone without full training on say, a construction site, involves some risk and thus requires extra time and attention on the part of the sponsor. Wage requirements, labor regulations and data collection (isn't there always data collection) cost potential sponsors and become disincentives for apprenticeships and must thus be weighed carefully by government. There is a balance between assuring that businesses do not take undue advantage of apprentices and attempting to guarantee a completely safe and free path to a career.

It's time for apprenticeships to shed their image of the awkward step child of career pathways. Doing so will take the cooperation of schools, government and parents. Holding government to their pledge of providing career ready education seems a great place to start.

Check out apprenticeships in Missouri here.


  1. This is definitely an idea and a program that needs to come out of the moth balls. I think the best way for government to help is to simply get out of the way and stop regulating everything, they really have no constitutional authority in this area to begin with. Many people are really not suited for a college pathway to success but would thrive and develop a good career through an apprenticeship program.

  2. Great Job Angie-

    I have a nephew who's a wood worker for a yacht builder, the million dollar plus variety.. Most law school grads would cry if they knew what he earned, without a penny in student loans to payback


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