by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Consider the problem facing many employers: You’d like to find workers with a set of job-specific skills, but these skills are in short supply. You could hire workers without the skills and then train them, yet there is a risk that, once trained, they might abandon you for some other employer offering a higher wage. That is a risk that few employers are willing to take, especially as many workers, particularly women without children and men, change employers relatively frequently. If employers could share the burden of investing in the human capital of their workers, they’d be far more inclined to take on the risk. This is exactly what apprenticeship programs are meant to bring about. By providing students with vocational education, these programs ensure that they are ready to take part in on-the-job training. Students gain skills while also producing more and more value for their employers over time.
To many Americans, however, the very idea of a vocational track seems inegalitarian, as it suggests that some students are simply not suited to college-level work. Others maintain that apprenticeships are too rigid, as they lock young people into a specific vocational track. Both of these charges are wrongheaded. If anything, apprenticeship programs can do much to redress entrenched inequalities. Most Americans find employment opportunities through their social networks. Success in most entry-level jobs is determined not by one’s ability to master formal coursework, but rather by one’s familiarity with the ways of the workplace. The ability to work independently or to persist in difficult tasks doesn’t come naturally to all young people, yet these so-called non-cognitive skills are absolutely crucial to finding a job and keeping it. Apprenticeship helps level the playing field for students who aren’t socialized into work through their families. This is particularly important in light of family breakdown and the chaotic circumstances in which a growing number of American children are raised. By giving young people an opportunity to master difficult tasks, apprenticeship helps them develop confidence and self-esteem, qualities that can prove beneficial even if the student in question never seeks employment in the field in which he was trained. This is particularly important for young men who find traditional academic environments dull and disempowering.
For all our focus on college for all, the United States still faces an enormous high-school-dropout problem. The share of public-high-school students who earn regular high-school diplomas in the standard four-year window is 80 percent, and 69 and 73 percent among black and Latino students respectively. Some of these students manage to complete high school by staying behind a year or two, and some complete GEDs, but outcomes for this latter group are only slightly less grim than those for high-school dropouts as a whole. Because students from disadvantaged backgrounds face such long odds when it comes to finishing high school and college, many grow disillusioned with formal education, choosing instead to seek low-wage paid employment at the first opportunity. The problem, of course, is that the low-wage work available to high-school dropouts rarely offers a path to middle-class stability. Combining vocational education with paid-employment opportunities might prove attractive to students on the cusp of dropping out. Even students who are at no risk of dropping out might find the prospect of earning as they learn attractive, and structured work experiences might help them form social ties with employers and more-experienced workers that could prove advantageous later in life.