From education to employment

Apprenticeship redux

Apprenticeships are being rediscovered as an efficient and effective means of getting people to work in jobs that are already available. Over 4 million jobs were unfilled in the United States as of February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Approximately one-half of those jobs require specialized skills demanded by American companies and employers.

America, like Britain, continues to struggle to match the skills needs of employers with the skills qualifications of workers. This mismatch costs our respective economies and hampers our ability to compete effectively in the global market. But there are tried and tested strategies for easing this situation.

Apprenticeship has been a staple for ensuring employment in European countries for years. Germany and Demark, to name just a couple, foster apprenticeship programs on scales that dwarf that of the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor estimated registered apprenticeships numbered around 398,000 in 2013. But that number is down significantly from in 2003, when registered apprenticeships numbered 490,000, according a U.S. News & World Report article by Danielle Kurtzleben in January 2013. The same article states that by contrast, some 1.5 million Germans were trained annually through apprenticeship programs.

American government officials, like their counterparts in the U.K., have taken notice of neighboring apprenticeship programs. Kurtzleben writes that “the U.K., seeing Germany’s success, is trying to ramp up its own program, in which more than half a million people began apprenticeships last year.” While apprenticeship programs have existed since the birth of the American Republic, such programs historically have fallen under the auspices of private trade unions rather than government.

On April 7th, the Obama Administration announced the creation of a “Registered Apprenticeship-College Consortium“. The program will focus on expanding articulation agreements between American colleges and universities, especially community colleges, and U.S. employers. The Administration hopes that community colleges will voluntarily participate in the program and award academic credit during their apprenticeships. The program sheds a bright light on restoring the prevalence of apprenticeship programs to their glory years of several decades ago.

It seems to me this constitutes a good step forward. What is most needed, though, is a revitalized compact among government, employers and the trades that foster career and occupational pathways to the skilled and needed professions. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the United States has long parlayed the power of association into dynamic and effective progress in a system that values limited government and free-market forces. However, government has played an important role, particularly after the Second World War in providing leadership and resources to increase American labor force skills and productivity.

If America and, frankly, Britain are to continue their historic progress as strong and vital nations, government must continue to help shape our free-market systems to unleash the power of community colleges and colleges of further education. Our colleges work hand-in-hand with employers to tackle our respective mismatch between the jobs that exist and skills gap of our working populations. It’s a formula that has worked throughout history and one which is worth revisiting. And frankly, I believe constitutes a viable solution if we want to bridge the gap between unfilled jobs and unemployed workers.

J. Noah Brown is the president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees and the author of First in the World: Community Colleges and America’s Future. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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