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Mountains of College Debt, Expansion of Natural Gas Industry are Reasons to Ramp Up Apprenticeship

A recent Washington Post op-ed from two top economists highlights the need for apprenticeship to help U.S. workers gain a competitive edge.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former adviser to Presidents Carter and Clinton, and American University economics professor Robert I. Lerman argue that a growing natural gas industry means manufacturing jobs could be on the rise in the near future. Apprenticeships, they say, could be the best way to avoid a “skills gap” when the jobs rush hits:

The United States is on the verge of a manufacturing comeback . The domestic energy boom and low natural gas prices, together with competitive wage rates, can lead to a resurgence and the potential revival of goods-producing industries that could provide a great opportunity to increase middle-class wages, reduce income inequality and expand social mobility. But we also risk squandering this historic opportunity — mainly because firms interested in investing in the United States are finding too few workers with the skills needed to achieve the productivity and quality required in today’s globally competitive industries.

The skills gap is real. U.S. unemployment remains at 7.5 percent, and only one out of two African American men in their early 20s has a job. A survey of employers published last year revealed that about 600,000 jobs go unfilled because of a lack of skilled labor. Meanwhile, German companies’ top complaint about expanding operations in the United States is an inadequate number of skilled workers for intermediate-level technical occupations. Swiss companies have the same complaint. The problems lie not with college-educated engineers or graduates with general bachelor’s degrees but in the dearth of skilled machinists, welders, robotics programmers and those who maintain equipment.

To prepare the American workforce for the jobs of tomorrow, Eizenstat and Lerman suggest not only modernizing our apprenticeship programs to more closely mirror Europe’s efforts but to avoid the reliance on a “college-only” approach to development:

Although apprenticeships yield significant earnings gains for workers, this country has too few programs, partly because of the massive bias in public spending toward a college-only approach. Government spending on colleges and universities tops $300 billion per year; outlays to apprenticeship programs total less than $40 million annually. A public-private initiative could increase competitiveness and youth employment, upgrade skills and wages, achieve positive returns for employers and workers, and reduce government spending if companies played a larger role in skills development. A well-tested method in other countries involves building apprenticeship training so that it becomes a rewarding alternative for young people who are not bound for a traditional four-year university degree and a recruitment and training method for employers.

In fact, apprenticeship has been so unerfunded in the public realm that private sector unions have decided to carry their own torch. The construction unions affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO are investing over $1 billion annually in apprenticeship programs of their own. This means that many young workers who either forego college or graduate college with no job lined up (and mountains of debt) have a well-orchestrated alternative built to lead to a successful career.

As our nation’s demographics continue to skew toward the young and diverse, apprenticeships will be increasingly important to providing equitable, reliable opportunity. By allowing young workers to earn as they learn — instead of accumulating debt as they learn — modernized apprenticeship programs could also mean that the next generation is in better economic shape at a younger age. Eizenstat and Lerman nimbly call this “college-plus”:

Think of the approach as “college-plus.” The classroom courses that apprentices take are at least equal to community college offerings in their occupational tracks. But apprentices can immediately apply what they learn, benefit from employment-based advising and mentoring, and have a chance to gain and demonstrate skills such as reliability, teamwork and problem-solving — all while earning money instead of borrowing it.

Read their entire op-ed here.


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