States Learn the Value of Apprenticeship Training Programs

NEAL R. PEIRCE

March 16, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

The idea of a brand-new school-to-work transition -- a mix of on-the-job apprenticeships and continuing course work for the youth who aren't headed for college -- seems poised to sweep the nation.

International competition is the driving force. American industries complain of lack of skilled labor. And evidence shows that countries such as Germany and Japan, which have farsightedly trained cadres of highly skilled semi-professional and craft workers, are adapting far more nimbly to new technological challenges.

President Clinton specifically cited youth apprenticeship in his economic address to Congress; he wants to earmark $1.2 billion for the effort, spread over the next four years.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a prime apprenticeship exponent. Indeed she served on two national commissions focused on youth and skills -- one which turned out a 1987 report called ''The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America,'' the other a 1990 report, ''America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!''

The new Cabinet secretaries of Labor and Education -- Robert B. Reich and Richard W. Riley -- are already campaigning enthusiastically for apprenticeships.

Mr. Riley makes it clear that a ''radical restructuring'' of the high school years will have to move well beyond the school reform effort that most of the 50 states tried with mixed results in the 1980s.

''The United States is the only industrialized nation without a formal school-to-work transition,'' Mr. Riley told a conference organized by the Massachusetts-based non-profit, Jobs for the Future, in Washington last month.

Labor Secretary Reich said that the bitter fruit of a two-tier society springs to view when one looks at any American city. People up in the steel-and-glass towers, with their computers and problem-solving skills, are earning high wages. But low-skilled workers down at street level -- the laborers, service and restaurant workers -- ''are hobbling along at or near the minimum wage.''

The income gap between college graduates and people who completed high school, or less, used to be 30 percent. But now it's nearly 60 percent and growing, Mr. Reich noted. The globalization of the world economy means that ''if you're unskilled, millions and millions of people around the world are willing to do your job for a lot less.''

On top of that, technology is displacing semi-skilled workers -- robots in factories, for example, or cash machines in place of bank clerks. If you're unskilled in today's economy, warns Mr. Reich, ''you're sinking.'' If you have a college or advanced degree, you're probably rising.

Unease over these trends has prompted 20 American states and many cities, just since 1990, to inaugurate pilot apprenticeship programs. In Pennsylvania, it's machine tooling for high school and college students in apprentice with 76 metal-trade firms who said they couldn't find enough skilled workers. In Boston, three high schools are tied in with local hospitals, with a promise to students of certification in a marketable medical skill after four years.

Other operating apprenticeship programs, from Pickens County, S.C., to Pasadena, Calif., to Portland, Ore., range from microelectronics to printing and graphic arts to trade and tourism.

The object is to provide young people with quite specific skills that put them on a trajectory toward solid $30,000-to $60,000 a year salaries. The programs aim for high-relevance technology, with close classroom-workplace coordination.

Even with this burst of activity, the apprenticeship movement faces formidable barriers.

First there's the cultural message telegraphed in every American high school: If you're headed for college, you're smart, you're headed for a white-collar future. If you're not, you're blue collar, and you hardly count; the best we have for you are some dull ''voc ed'' programs (often based on outdated technologies).

The new message has to be that dignity, real jobs and promising careers await young people who pick a para-professional route and stick with school long enough to learn the conceptual skills they'll need to keep on learning as jobs change over time.

Second, many of today's youth go on to college just to be ''in.'' Thousands fail to stay the course. If apprenticeships spread, some four-year colleges may see their enrollments drop (while community colleges play a larger role). High schools that fail to adapt may lose students and thus state aid. Many professional educators could find this much change hard to swallow.

Third, experience in successful apprenticeship countries (Germany, for example) shows there has to be an extraordinarily close partnership among business, labor and government. But here, business and labor tend to be excessively adversarial, and both of them distrust government. The triangular alliance in Europe is based on cooperation running all the way back to the medieval guilds. It may be hard to reproduce here.

Finally, there are federalist questions. A good apprenticeship program would provide graduates with a certificate of proficiency that's ''portable'' -- based on high standards and acceptable, industry by industry, all over the country.

But will we accept national standards, even if they're agreed on by industry-based boards? And how do we take the requisite, sometimes controversial, steps to enforce those standards, through 50 state education systems and America's 17,000 independent school districts?

The answer is: No one yet knows. But with American education today so seriously shortchanging millions of young people, that fairly radical change simply has to come.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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