The United States is investing in apprenticeship, as well as expanding the scope of careers covered under the registered apprenticeship umbrella—this is great news, but we have a long way to go to establish apprenticeship to serve a wide array of education and training needs. Underemployed or unemployed adults are not the only workers who benefit from apprenticeship, which marries work experience and credit-bearing college course work—young people do too. And it’s with this population that the U.S. is seriously behind. In honor of National Apprenticeship Week and the new interest in providing more anytime, anywhere education options that combine school and career preparation, the U.S. should learn from our European compatriots about how apprenticeship benefits young people.
American Youth Need to Learn about Work
As recently as a generation ago, young people in the U.S. grew up knowing that if they finished high school, they could expect to find careers with decent salaries. Today, though, millions of young Americans are stepping into the labor market after high school to find a series of part-time, low-wage jobs that barely allow them to support themselves, much less build a satisfying life. The same is true of those with some college credits or a poorly chosen two- or four-year degree.
The Great Recession of 2008 and the changing nature of the labor market have had a major impact on the well-being of many Americans, and an inordinately heavy impact on youth. Young people of color, youth from low-income backgrounds, and youth who have either dropped out of high school or graduated but have no postsecondary plan have been hit particularly hard. In 2000, 44% of teens were in the labor market; by 2011, the figure had dropped to 24%. For urban, low-income young people of color, the odds of having any job at all now stand at roughly 10%. In fact, the young people with the highest employment rates come from families earning $120,000 or more, and the rates are lowest among young people with family incomes below $40,000, the young people most in need of earning power.
Learning from Switzerland about Youth Apprenticeships
Think back to when you were 16 or 17. You probably looked for a job, and maybe found a decent one. But if you’re an older teenager today looking for work, you are likely to have this problem: If you don’t have experience you can’t get a job, and if you can’t get a job, you can’t get experience. School doesn’t help very much—how do you experience the work world when school doesn’t teach you much about work?
Now imagine this: By the time you’re 15, you have already done research to see what kind of a career might interest you. You visited an advanced manufacturing site, a graphic design studio, and a bank as part of your school’s focus on anytime, anywhere learning. Now as you get ready to leave ninth grade, you apply for an apprenticeship. Some are very competitive—say, to work in international banking or in a major phone and Internet provider. Others may seem more low-key—like learning to be a carpenter or more service-oriented like working in a retirement or health care facility. Once you are accepted at a company, then you know where you’ll go to school and what you’ll study. For the next three or four years, your week consists of three days at work, two days at school, and an occasional stint in an intercompany training organization (like the Centre for Young Professionals, in Zurich, Switzerland). Your company pays you between $600 and $800 a month to start, moving up to $1,000 or $1,200 or more by the end of your third year.
This education system serves 70% of Switzerland’s young people. 16- to 19-year- olds complete the equivalent of high school (and a year or so of community college) through what the Swiss call “VPET,” or vocational and professional training. Not only do Swiss dancers, engineers, social workers, and many CEOs get their start in the VPET system, they also get to move on to careers with decent wages and opportunities for further study including a PhD or a professional graduate degree. The country’s employers support this system: Its main phone and internet service, Swisscom, has around 800 young people at work, and the banking and financial services institution, Credit Suisse, around 650. Almost everyone gets a job when they graduate and Swiss youth unemployment is around 3%.
Schools that Work for Youth in the United States
So what’s a young person in the United States to do? While we don’t have a good system of career education, there are a number of good options, though not enough to go around. Among the most impressive networks incorporating learning for specific careers are up-to-date vocational high schools, career academies, High Tech High Schools, Cristo Rey schools, Big Picture Schools, P-TECH models, and early college schools. Each provides some form of applied learning related to the labor market from programs linked to industries (e.g., finance, veterinary technology, information technology, and health care), to individualized multiyear mentorships, to an engineering curriculum that gets students started on design thinking. Each provides opportunities for students to become truly engaged in problem solving, teamwork, and communicating with diverse colleagues.
Cristo Rey students share a single full-time job (in a law firm, bank, hospital, or other setting), with each student working one day a week to pay school tuition. Big Picture students make personalized learning plans that take them out to work several days a week with mentors, and a goal of defining their passions and finding work that is satisfying. Massachusetts vocational schools typically host companies on site and provide the clinical training required for industry certifications. Worcester Tech, for example, hosts Tufts at Tech, a veterinary clinic serving the community.
One particularly interesting school in Clovis, California, is the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART), which provides half-day programs for 1,300 eleventh and twelfth graders from 15 high schools. The CART building, designed to replicate a high-performance business atmosphere, is organized around four career clusters—professional sciences, engineering, advanced communications, and global economics. Teachers, business partners, and invited experts work not in classrooms but in large open similar a high-tech startup or science lab. Within each cluster are career-specific laboratories in which students complete industry-based projects and receive academic credit for advanced English, science, math, and technology. Students do everything from testing water in the High Sierra, to making industry-standard films, to trying out aviation careers by actually flying planes. Teaching teams include business and science partners, and many teachers have extensive professional experience.
Learning to work, learning about work, and experiencing a productive workplace should be integral to secondary education. What would it take to expand programs like those noted above so that the links with industry are even stronger, and the high school pathway are linked to an Associate’s degree program in a community college? What would it take to extend the benefits of registered apprenticeship to 16-year-olds? The White House is increasingly calling for high school redesign. Registered apprenticeship is one form of redesign whose time has come.