Apprenticeships v. College

In my post, College has been oversold, I discussed the 40% college dropout rate. In a piece in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Tuning in to the Dropping Out, I reprise some of this material but also discuss high school dropouts and the importance of alternative education paths.

In the 21st century, an astounding 25 percent of American men do not graduate from high school. A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. “Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years,” we tell the students, “and all will be well.” Lots of students, however, crash before they reach the end of the road. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to an education.

Consider those offered in Europe. In Germany, 97 percent of students graduate from high school, but only a third of these students go on to college. In the United States, we graduate fewer students from high school, but nearly two-thirds of those we graduate go to college. So are German students poorly educated? Not at all.

Instead of college, German students enter training and apprenticeship programs—many of which begin during high school. By the time they finish, they have had a far better practical education than most American students—equivalent to an American technical degree—and, as a result, they have an easier time entering the work force. Similarly, in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, between 40 to 70 percent of students opt for an educational program that combines classroom and workplace learning.

…In the United States, “vocational” programs are often thought of as programs for at-risk students, but that’s because they are taught in high schools with little connection to real workplaces. European programs are typically rigorous because the training is paid for by employers who consider apprentices an important part of their current and future work force. Apprentices are therefore given high-skill technical training that combines theory with practice—and the students are paid! Moreover, instead of isolating teenagers in their own counterculture, apprentice programs introduce teenagers to the adult world and the skills, attitudes, and practices that make for a successful career.

For more see Launching the Innovation Renaissance and–showing the opportunity for consensus on this topic–a recent post on apprenticeships from the Shanker blog.


I America, your either a winner or a loser. Vocational training may be a path to the middle class, but its an implicit acknowledgement that the middle class is as far as your going. Real winners go to college (even Bill, Steve, and Zuck go there, meet other smart people to work with, and then drop out).

Thanks to Bill, Steve, and Zuck you may no longer have to go there to meet those people. Go back and re-watch the opening date scene of The Social Network. "Oh, you'd do that for me?...f off."

As opposed to other countries? You think Germans have better access to fabulous wealth than Americans?

I America, your either a winner or a loser.

Wow. We live in different Americas.

In my town, the richest people are Doctors, Lawyers, and tradesmen who started their own companies (plus a few blue collar salesmen who have their own dealerships). You can't climb the corporate ladder if all you are as skilled in the trades. But you have an easier time starting your own company. And that is a path to winning all by itself.

You can’t climb the corporate ladder if all you are as skilled in the trades.

Many people would see that as a feature, not a bug. (Climbing the corporate ladder takes a special kind of "winning" all by itself.)

Reminds me of this G.K. Chesterton quote:
"Among the very rich you will never find a really generous man, even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egoistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it."


I was just trying to be fair to all points of view. Personally, I rank MBA's below lawyers on my scale of who we should shoot first :)

"To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it."
Yes, because only boring people like money...

The guy that invented microwave ovens didn't even have a high school degree. The piece of engineering that linked the release of pressure from the boiler to the activation of the brakes on old steam engine trains was a kid (8 - 10).
Formal education has been overrated for years. (Good to see some on the inside starting to realize it.)

And you think we can't match with a list of guys who invented important things and had a formal education?

Not necessarily. A self employed tradesman can build a business into quite a profitable income. I've known general contractors who enjoying a very nice living.

Are you sure most or even many U.S. drop outs would be interested in an apprenticeship?

apprenticeship hanging out on a street corner

Do we have to be absolutely sure in order to try something that has worked since...forever?

Sadly, Ted Craig questions is more relevant than I would like. Right now it would be easier for me to convince parents to let their kids go into the Marines than it would be to convince them to go to trade school. Trade school is for losers in many people minds even though many of the same people who think that way are happy for their kids to go into the armed forces because "you get learn some real skills that way".

But aren't we talking about the difference between

A. Loser >>> trade school
B. Loser >>> no trade school

USMC, or any of the armed forces, are a trade school by another name. They give you a test to figure out what you're good at, and then they give you a job doing it.

Hey, it worked for me. Even better, the discipline I had to learn to complete my apprenticeship was essential when I eventually wound up getting a college degree. But that's an anecdote.

It sort of stands to reason that the percentage of American students interested in completing a high-school based technical or vocational degree should be equivalent to the percentage completing them in Germany, Sweden, or even England.

My own experience of high school wasn't that I was too lazy, stupid, or slack, it was that I really didn't see a lot of payoff to writing essays about Shakespeare or diagramming sentences in English, doing proofs in Geometry, learning food groups or anatomy in Health, learning about the Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 in history and the capitol cities and entry orders of the 50 states in History, etc.

On the other hand, despite a generous C- GPA I aced the mechanical elements of geometry (grading period grades over the course of the year were A, F, F, A, A, F), I aced what turned out to be a physiology-focused "applied chemistry" course, I burned through the fabrication elements of various art classes, etc. Oh, and by the time I finally dropped out over a petty dispute with a vice principal I was door-to-door delivering 750 newspapers a day starting at 4:30, every day, 365 days a year.

After more than three years of homelessness and near homelessness I was offered an old-school, sleep-in-the-back apprenticeship with an old-school industrial craftsman and took to it like a fish to water. When cheap imports dropped the bottom out of that industry I picked up a fast-food manager training program, and three years later wound up in college where I did very well (including, of all things, enjoying learning about Shakespeare and Henry Clay!) From there I stumbled into high tech, and ended up retiring days before my 41st birthday.

So yeah, since a) a lot of people who end up in college aren't actually all that bright or ambitious but at least had a path to success laid out in front of them, and since b) a lot of people who drop out are bright and could be ambitious if they saw a path to success was available to them I think it's safe to say that a lot of U.S. drop outs would be interested in an apprenticeship or other voc/tech training if it was backed by serious real-business employers the way Germany's is.


Listen to the wisdom of figleaf!

I dunno. I think Figleaf's covering something up... ;-)

"My own experience of high school wasn’t that I was too lazy, stupid, or slack, it was that I really didn’t see a lot of payoff to writing essays about Shakespeare or diagramming sentences in English, doing proofs in Geometry, learning food groups or anatomy in Health, learning about the Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 in history and the capitol cities and entry orders of the 50 states in History, etc."

My own experience of college was that I was lazy and slacked because I didn't see payoff in having to spend two years and $10,000 in tuition alone taking elective courses like Intro to Theatre, Geology of the National Parks & Native American Issues. These arcane requirements had little or nothing to do with my Economics major and Political Science minor. Maybe a baccalaureate program should have streamlined paths for students who declare a major/minor allowing for more coursework in within their chosen field. I wonder how many of the college students who drop out during the first two years do so because they feel that the courses they are taking (like History of Jazz) are a waste of time and money.

@chad - yeah, it's unfortunate that when you have the opportunity to go to school, you're too young to appreciate that all knowledge is valuable. By the time you learn that, you're too old for undergrad studies.

If I had a nickel for every youngster I've met that gave me the "why do we have to learn this - I can't see how I'll ever need to use it" spiel...

Trade schools are a good path for folks that don't have the patience or the curiosity to pursue a well-rounded higher education.

a) a lot of people who end up in college aren’t actually all that bright or ambitious but at least had a path to success laid out in front of them

It's not just college. Look at many law students....

Education is the education version of prostate cancer screening. Lots of tests, lots of costs, lots of people getting screwed, almost zero evidence of effectiveness.

That's a hell of a story, figleaf. To me, that sounds like the sort of be-your-own-man path that America is famous for and that certain elements don't want to admit is still realistic--it counters their preferred victim narrative of 'oh, I did everything I was told to, and I'm stuck here in mom's house forever.'

I have a similar story of non-traditional advancement. People forget how huge this world is and how many opportunities are on offer every second. But you have to be willing to chase after them, be flexible, and do things that may not have been in your life plan. Where would you have ended up if that craftsman offered to make you his apprentice and you decided, 'nah, I make more sitting here on unemployment'? If you had seen that fast food training opportunity and turned it down because you told yourself only losers work in that industry and society owed you job that was clean, green, and well-paying at 22?

My old man offers endless variations on the wisdom that every person has opportunity come to them many times in their lives, but most people ignore it because it tends to look like a guy with dirt under his nails telling you to come on, hop in the truck, and come to work. Right now, not after you've thought about it and checked LinkedIn and emailed another 200 resumes. My humble addition to that would be, if you want to look for success to emulate, don't look at the JDs and MBAs who went to elite schools and come out in their 20s to six-figure Manhattan jobs. They're there, sure, but it's just not replicable by the vast majority of us. Listen to the advice of the older guys who have trucks with their last name on the side, or who have their offices in those strip-mall industrial parks out by the airport. They've probably been where you are now, intimately know hard times and how to rise above them, and their wisdom can likely be bought for the price of a beer.

Hell, if you listen, one of them might tell you to hop in the truck and come to work with him. Go.

How much did you pay the old school industrial craftsman to take you on as an apprentice? After all, what he was giving you was valuable, so in a free market you should be paying him, right?

The reasons the apprenticeships of my youth, the ones my dummy-track (not on the college track) high school peers took, existed was the contract between workers via their unions with the corporations. The unions often oversaw the apprentices while the employers paid them, and in exchange, the unions made sure competitors didn't poach the trained workers after they became craftsmen by organizing the competitors, or making sure the union companies got the profitable jobs that supported both the union shops and the union workers.

This union system replaced the apprenticeship contracts t=which Ben Franklin broke so famously with his older brother.

The 80s were sort of the peak of promoting the Ben Franklin contract breaking, which forced many corporations to stop taking on apprentices. Efficiencies and global trade allowed US corporations to get by without new apprentices, and just coast on the large pool of craftsman produced in the 50s, 60s, 70s. For example, under Reagan, the US stopped trying to produce more oil so the instead of needing more experienced oil workers, geologists, engineers, etc, the US needed a lot less. Under Reagan, the defense industry suffered huge losses as the liberals who drove economic development by dual use R&D funding through DARPA with conservatives supporting the war side and liberals the science and technology side. NASA was a masterpiece which Eisenhower invented and JFK marketed, and that kept dozens of aircraft companies competing and winning both military and commercial contracts. The aerospace industry employed lots of union workers who ran what were effectively apprentice programs, and the young workers and old workers and the corporations paid the overhead because every competitor had to in order to have the skilled workers and the buyers.

And on way the US defended this system from Asia was by industrial policy that reflected the experience of the Revolutionary wars through WWII - in war, you must have the manufacturing on your shores and you must have the experienced workers on your shores and you must have the ability to train more on your shores.

If the US needed to build a Navy fleet to face off against China, the US would need to recreate an industry, and the biggest challenge would be creating the apprentice programs to train the huge increase in the workers required.

Terrible post, but the end really got screwy.

The US manufactures almost all of its defense materiel domestically. We export a bunch too.

Why do you think the defense budget is so hard to cut?

Now that I have gone back and read "College has been oversold" and every last comment there (very educational actually), Figleaf has brought me to a startling conclusion...

If we have tens of thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands of:
a) successful (degree earned) degree seeking students who cannot find employment, or
b) unsuccessful (drop out) degree seeking students who cannot find employment

of which:
TRUE: all are forever burdened from inescapable privately funded student debt from which there is no write-off escape, then...

they can all assume trades via post- formal education part 1 assimilation into the service economy, thus, spurring economic expansion, where, whatever is not garnished from their wages (call this "Trade School Tuition") can be used to fund attempt formal education #2 of college. This time, they may have the mental strength (or weakness) to make it though contextless STEM classes, and thus, achieve advanced theoretical degrese in micro-abstcractive tower-silos, giving america a super-citizenry or part applied/trade and part theoretical/modeling super minds. A side effect of which is realization of teh maximum potential of domestic GDP.

I am telling my 3 year old to take up kiteboarding ( a trade ) and mandrain chinese ( liberal studies ) to spend life as a $250 an hour instructor for chinese tourists on a Caribbean resort known for it's tax haven policies. That's calculating ( math ). He is more likely to make more meaningful social connections with people running successful agile startups, senior engineers throttling particles through underground tunnels, and fill-in-the-blank smart global travelers in such an environment.

I think most businesses would not be too interested in the drop outs. Getting an apprenticeship can be quite competitive for German youngsters. Many of them end up without one or with one that they didn't really want (in a slaughterhouse or as a hairdresser).

The Annandale campus of NoVA Community College has a very practical department, Science and Applied Technologies.

"The departments within the Science and Applied Technologies division include Automotive, Biology, Biotechnology, Building Technologies, Chemistry, Computer Science, Developmental Mathematics, Environmental Science, Geology, Health, Information Technology, Mathematics, Physical Education, Physics & Natural Science and Welding."

If you're feeling generous, you can fund scholarships for students in that department.

It is post-high school. However, I understand that several local high schools in northern VA also have practical "vocational" training programs, including cosmetology and culinary arts. E.g., TC Williams:

"Physics and natural science and welding" is a very odd combination.

A wise hedge.

As I constantly harp on, we now have STEM elementary schools.

This is us...doing things EXACTLY wrong.

Oh, the humanity!

Think of the insecure parents!

Do it for the insecure parents!

Here's what it is: parents haven't got a clue but they are scared witless by politicians, business leaders, and schools. We pay these people to take care of the problem. What they come back with is "okay, you asked for it, here it is, STEM schools."

That's not what we as parents actually want, but we just can't get the people who are supposed to take care of it to do the right things. Everyone has had that service guy who would only give you exactly what you asked for when it's not your job as the customer to know what exactly to ask for.

' ' “Physics and natural science and welding” is a very odd combination.' '

You obviously know nothing about welding.

No doubt some kids are not meant for college . . .but I can hear it already, tracking children into certain fields will get folks clamoring that the school thinks their kid is stupid

How 'bout we just (1) make engineering easier and (2) help people figure out if that's what they really want to do BEFORE spending 2 years taking up space in engineering courses.

What they want to do and what they are capable of doing are different.

Not necessarily.

one thing I found out about college, was the course work will weed out the folks who can't hack the field. In my intro to finance many years ago the professor predicted 60% of the kids would drop the course in the first two weeks. . .and he was right, a lot of empty chairs after that.

I don't think too many kids are spinning their wheel in engineering classes

"...the professor predicted 60% of the kids would drop the course in the first two weeks."

I thought that was the whole point of most required freshman-year 101 courses in mainstream state and private universities! They're hard, boring, often taught by 1st-year grad students or else by canned video to multiple hundreds of students at a time, at really crappy times of day, and the content is rarely irrelevant to much of anything you do in your junior or senior years, let alone anything you'll actually do after graduation.


au contraire . . finance was third year, taught by a professor . . .for business students,

never saw so many kids drop a course...

So, 3 years in before they let you in on the secret that you wasted YEARS?

I assume they just didn't take that course. If not, that's even worse than engineering. At least they weed out by first or second year.


Why would they be wasted? Let's say that the person can't cut the finance curriculum . . . does that mean their previous two years in are wasted? Another major not an option? Just drop out and cut their losses?

My comment earlier was in response to someone saying that a person wasting their time in engineering classes in college when they may not have the aptitude . . .and I was merely observing that they would one of the students to drop the course as it would be too difficult if they did not have the skills to pull it off . . .they would be quickly weeded out

Yeah, that was me.

So, you are saying there is no waste in having to change majors after 3 years?

That's nuts right?

They might not be a waste except that we have a system with everything sliced and diced into these majors where you often can't pass if you fail one focus area.

If you can't pass a major due to a single weakness but then you find successful people in that industry who excel based on their strengths after having to sidestep the formal training aspects then that is a problem.

Unfortunately we can't kick teachers and professors out for being horrible at talent recognition.

Andrew- the first two years are getting in the prerequisites,

you declare a major going into your third year, so one botched course is not the end of the world and may just direct someone to another field of study,

I would even venture to say that even the courses that you failed or dropped teach you something . . .that maybe that field of study isn't for you

That's better, but we should always be pushing the knowledge further up and the gates further back, IMHO.

In a business degree track there is no shame in dropping finance if what you really want to do is marketing, operations, hr etc. Hell, it's not even really necessary for entrepreneurship, though understanding what kind of financing options make sense for various business types is. I can teach that course in a day or two.

why are those folks not clamoring about their children currently not going to college? why should we assume they clamor against all change?

Maybe because pigeon-holeing a kid at age 18 seems more acceptable than at ages 14 or 10?

What's so wrong with not pigeon-holing people at all but helping them discover where there actual aptitudes are?

Why do we have to do everything exactly wrong?

How about we help children develop their natural talents and stop assuming that college is the only way to do that?

How about parents (especially on the east coast?) stop equating credentials with "success"?

How about stopping the "everyone is a winner" nonsense and also stop equating for all people financial success with "winning"?

Because God is dead. And when God is dead and all you have is materialism, "winning" is all that matters.

Reminds me of something I witnessed years ago: A guy in an expensive suit cut to the front of a line in an airport. He was carrying a book, "Looking out for #1." I was laughing so hard I didn't even object.

Better an honest asshole than a hypocrite.

Still cracks me up.

I'm always looking out for #2 -- it makes a bigger mess when you step in it.

From what I heard from Germans, getting your kid into Gymnasium is quite a parental obsession.

Absolutely true.
And the decision is made when the kids are 9 or 10. That's when the switch for your life chances is turned.


Alex, are you suggesting we gas undesirables?

(Go Godwin early I always say)

"You know who else liked apprenticeships? Hitler!"

What are the dropout rates for ethnic Germans in America? They are supposed to be the largest white ethnic group, although many of them have switched identification to Irish, apparently because the latter is cooler.

Speaking of Godwin, that makes two "ethnic groups" who supported Hitler!

I'll rather stay German because I don't want red hair.

I think that the comparisons are misleading. In Germany, children are streamed, after four years of elementary school, into one of four school forms, which are generally completely separate institutions: Gymnasium (5th through 12th (formerly 13th) grades), Realschule (5th through 10th grade), Hauptschule (5th through 9th) and Sonderschule (for students with disabilities. (Gesamtschulen, an innovation of the last generation, place two or more of these forms under one roof, with the theoretical potential for students to rise or fall in school form.) Gymnasium ends with an Abitur, a diploma allowing one to study at University level or in technical or professional college and their training includes at least two foreign languages and advanced maths and sciences, Haupt and Real school students have less academic training and more practical training, much of it coordinated with business and industry, with the ideal of leading directly into a formal training program, sometimes the traditional apprentice/journeyman/master path. Businesses are expected — with help of both state and trade organization incentives and penalties — to participate in these training programs. It must be noted however, that there is a kind of school form inflation at work nowadays and the gymnasium, traditionally the elite school, has become the school choice of a majority of parents and students, and that the Hauptschule is close to extinction.

In many school districts in the US, more or less exact equivalents for all of this are present. The major difference is that the equivalents of all four school forms are housed in one pair of institutions, the Jr and Sr high schools and the minimal end target of all students is the high school diplomat after 12 years, regardless of whether those years were spent in special, remedial, standard or advanced level courses. In most high schools, students who are not college bound have access to career training both on campus and in the community and many can leave high school with the equivalent of journeyman status in careers ranging from carpentry and auto mechanics to clerical and culinary work. Some communities and schools do this supremely well, others are failing badly, not least because of the lack of partners in the community from business and industry. This is in part due to transformations of US industry which either see no public responsibility for training programs or now think of training programs as an expensive option to be applied only to their employees, as well as some abuses, for example the widespread use of "training wages" as underpaid manual labor without a meaningful training program behind it, but it is also a problem in districts in which the local political dynamics focus on the college-bound and the career-bound are given short shrift.

I don't know how it is in Germany but you can't blame all the failure of trade education on the private sector. In my town, all the kids with mental handicaps and those who want to have a trade eduction are bused away from their schools to a separate program called BOCES. So not only do the kids in the trade track have to spend more time on the bus than kids who are in more traditional tracks,but they have to deal with the stigma of being with the "retarded" kids.

It does not hurt kids to learn that people with mental handicaps are people too. The real problem is that the co-location of the mentally handicapped and those wanting to learn a trade reflects the outlook of the administration regarding the trade course.

I took my HVAC course (really more like several course rolled into one) at BOCES as an adult. The course was taught by an excellent and somewhat locally famous HVAC tech. He quit shortly towards the end of my class because the Administration was trying to force him to teach mentally handicapped students how to be refrigeration techs. He was like: "I can teach these kids some plumbing, but DMV will not even let these kids lean how to drive. How am I suppose to teach them to handle high pressure refrigerants and deal with electricity safely?" But Administration was firm. It was his job as a teacher to teach the handicapped. From their point of view, everyone who was in the trade track was basically handicapped anyway.

So now he is back in the private sector where he makes almost double what he did as a teacher. He still likes to teach and he still offers classes at nights when ever he can. But not through BOCES.

At that very same attitude is why private sector companies don't work with BOCES more than do. Who wants to deal with a school system that says, "Any fool can do your job. Here train our dregs" ?

Most MBAs are taught people like you are too stupid to be an MBA and anyone can be an HVAC tech, even the brain damaged.

Sounds like the head of the Business school has been put in charge of BOCES.

I think the second half of the last paragraph, which is too long to quote, nails it. The reason the U.S. doesn't have a German-style apprenticeship program isn't that the parents won't cooperate, its because the employers won't cooperate.

Incidentally, I've seen recommendations that the U.S. adapt and adopt the German systems for over twenty years, made my commentators on the left, right, and center. We are dealing with an apple pie issue. So why it hasn't happened is an interesting question.

Give a listen to Russ Roberts' EconTalk episode with Adam Davidson (NPR) from 2 weeks ago, they talk about the same educational failure:

Yes, this was awesome, as was the original article.

I read this blog by RSS, and the author's name doesn't appear unless I click through. I can usually tell within the first sentence or two whether it's a Tabarrok post.

I suspect one reason why the system works in Germany is the lower wage variance between the "low" and "high" professions.


I think you are looking at the wages of a guy with only a high school education and a guy with a collage education and saying "boy, the gap is larger than it is in Germany, it must be the cause of the problem". If that is what you are doing, it is bogus reasoning. Most of the guys I know with only a high school education are un-motivated looser who actively avoid real work and just seek to keep themselves in enough money to chase girls and smoke pot. Those who were willing to work hard but just did not want to go to collage are now making more than most people with liberal arts degrees. But the latter category are in the minority so they don't show up in the statistics.

What you should be doing is comparing trained journeymen to collage graduates. I think you will find that most guys in the trades (especially the electrical and HVAC ones) make far more than the average liberal arts collage graduate. I think you have it backwards. The reason gap is lower in Germany is because the trade education over there is much better.

I could be wrong. All I can say is that the European tradesmen I know have much better trade education than most of the ones here in the states. And they make more money over here than they did back where they came from. So it is not like they took a pay cut by leaving the workers paradise that is Europe.

The wage gap is also lower because many of the trades are heavily regulated and protected from competition. You need a licence for anything. Those who got it, can keep up the prices and go home by 1700.

That makes these trades more attractive than they really would be in a non-distorted environment. It's true in the US too but not as important as in Germany.

Shouldn't you measure this proposal by outputs, not inputs?

Have you seen employer apprentice programs, or even government sponsored programs, serve as the source for employee recruitment and placement.

With so many people looking for jobs, and a plentiful supply of those produced under the current system, why would you expect change?

How much of the wages paid to German apprentices comes from the state as a subsidy?

Usually none.
There are exceptions for apprentices who are deemed hopeless cases on the open amrket (high school dropouts, recent immigrants with no German language skills, et cetera). The unemployment agency pays part of the wages (something like 2 months out of 12, sometimes even up to the first 6 months as a one-time payment in a 36-month contract.)

This article is from 1999 and about the Danish apprentice system.

Back then 70% of school-going apprentice wages were a subsidy. The subsidies are smaller today, but then again many of the existing tradesmen doing so well (that a lot of commentators admire) were probably trained long ago.


Since 1977, there has been a subsidy for all employers who employ apprentices so that the subsidy partly covers the wage during periods of school attendance. The subsidy is designed to cover about 70% of the wage costs
during school periods, and it is financed via a tax on all employers.

What component of German businesses helping to fund apprenticeship programs is strict labor laws forcing businesses to look at hiring as investment? If German labor laws were to relax, to drive structural unemployment further down, would German businesses continue to help fund apprenticeship programs?

they would. it minimizes search costs and the apprenticeship funding is not to generous

But why wouldn't some firms end their programs and then poach the workers they need from their competitors who maintain the programs, giving workers a wage bump of 20% of the training costs and keeping the 60% after the 20% cost of poaching workers as added profits.

In the US, companies seek out the employees of their competitors to do the same jobs for them, and offer bounties to workers who get former coworkers to betray the firm that trained them, but only if they end up being poached. This isn't much different than paying bounties for taking out players at opposing teams to gain a team advantage.

Don't work that way in my experience. There is plenty of poaching to be sure. But the sunk costs of training some one is low compared to their lifetime wage costs. Poaching is mostly done to fill gaps in the in the workforces and often involves a real move up in responsibility for the worker. A refrain I have heard a lot lately is "the only way to move up is to go to another company. They will not promote from within." Why this is so is beyond me. But it does seem like a fair number of companies operate that way.

The real question is why don't more companies train people?

In my experience, it is because a lot of the small business are started by tradesmen who don't have the training personality and that mindset often carries over as the company gets bigger. The more successful companies do a lot of training and developing of talent. But they are sadly a rarity.

By the way, there is an alternative to college that does train many young people in technical skills. It is also an institution Alex has railed against in recent posts.


The military.

Not only that, but they provide substantial educational benefits that you can use for traditional sonnets-and-Henry-Clay college as well, if you decide that you want to go that route.

I would add, though, having been a poor student, then an infantryman, then a good student (and employed), that by far the number one value-added that the military provides is being one of the only institutions left in American society that will take an entitled kid, teach him that he is not, in fact, a special snowflake and that yes, he needs to learn to get up and go to work every day, listen to his supervisors, and focus on the results he provides rather than how he feels about things.

And in these times when courses are being cut back and kids are taking 5+ years to graduate, there is a special schadenfreude in getting all the courses you need because your 'peers' think it's just expecting too much to get up before 11am for class.

"We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.":

I like my wage premium from fewer STEM majors; keep the status quo.

Last November Bagehot's notebook, an Economist blog, had an excellent post about the illusiory attractiveness of the german apprenticeship system.

The key point in the article is this: The bedrock of Germany's apprenticeship system is corporatism and restricted practice.

That is, of course an apprenticeship system is attractive for loads of capable but not highly academic kids, when the whole system is set up to prevent anyone who has not completed an apprenticeship from practicing that trade. Employers are happy to shell out lots of money in trading young kids, from the oligolpolistic rents they are guaranteed as a privileged member of their "guild", and the kids are guaranteed a cushy income once they complete the training.

So you could in theory implement such a system in the US or the UK, but it would be a huge shift in direction, involving far more than just changes in education policy, and the net result would be significant losses in competition and productivity in many sectors of the economy.

A great example of the perils of facile cross-country comparisons.

We have similar policies in the US, but rather than being tied to apprenticeships, they're tied to union membership and/or licensing requirements.

I don't know the specifics of the German system, but in general, apprenticeships are part of a private market replacement for union/licensing requirements. It allows aspirants to establish a track record with which they can eventually begin their own practice. It removes big labor and government from the equation. If you are willing and capable, you can enter the market.

It doesn't surprise me that an apprenticeship system run by the government (Germany) has been captured by a powerful special interest group. That is how I expect government to work. The US should take the lead in private market provided education, including private market vocational programs and apprenticeships.

How much of the relative attractiveness of the wages in trades is due to protectionism? Trades seem quite highly unionized and also sheltered from international competition; much easier to get an immigrant IT worker a visa, than an immigrant plumber or carpenter.

Will these protections that the current generations have enjoyed, last for the kids who are now in high-school and thinking about the trades?

Why should anyone go through an apprentice program? Why not just down load all the codes and read books on the trade and just declare yourself a master welder or electrician or plumber - what can an apprenticeship offer that just reading ebooks can't?

If you think apprenticeship provides experience, so a private school can provide that in the free market, then try to figure out the financing. Let's consider a machining apprenticeship - beyond the classrooms and a pretty good set of text books, you need metal working tools, space, and materials, and then millions of dollars in expensive machine tools. Even if you buy only one of each class of machine without matching the brands with the local industry, you will need at least 20 machines, and then you need instructors who are masters of all of them, not just skilled metal workers for that type of machining process.

If you want to get trained enough to weld for a nuclear power plant, or a brewery, you could probably manage to buy the equipment for yourself for about $100K, and then buy about $10K in materials, and if you are really good, you might be able to qualify as a certified welder for those classes of jobs in six months.

Apprentice programs involve bringing novices into a capital intensive field: physical capital+knowledge capital+proprietary capital in a way that doesn't destroy the capital. Letting a novice operate a machine without training and supervision can destroy the machine causing tens of thousands of damage to the machine, thousands of dollars in wasted stock, lost time and resources, and missed deadlines and thus lost contracts and revenue. And once you have taken all the risks and time to train a novice, losing that worker to a competitor is a huge capital loss.

Spoken like a guy who is never worked in the trades. There is a lot of stuff that you can't learn about the trades from books. And most of the guys who are really good tradesmen don't learn well from books anyway.

To put it another way, do you really want a doctor operating on you who has only learned by reading?

That said, the lack of book learning is the biggest problem in America's trades. A lot of the guys have taught themselves and they don't even know what they don't know. But you can't divorce the one from the other. You have to learn theory and do it at the same time. That is why good apprenticeship programs combined both. As does the military.

"what can an apprenticeship offer that just reading ebooks can’t?"

The whole part about establishing a track record which I explicitly stated in my post. Try walking into that nuclear plant and telling them you've read a bunch of ebooks about welding and maybe even taken a test. Apprenticeship is in fact a private market enabled education and licensing mechanism that worked perfectly before the government got involved in those processes.

Ape Man is correct but it isn't just limited to blue collar trades. Look at the CFA: Even if you've passed all the tests, they require 4 years of investment-related work experience before they will award you a charter.

The CFA, CPA, CFP, etc are also strong evidence that the government isn't needed even for licensing. And that licensing really isn't needed at all- imagine the absurdity of the government telling Renaissance Technologies, the most successful hedge fund of all time staffed mainly with mathematicians and physicists, that they can only hire CFA charter holders.

The bottom line is, the market is perfectly capable of determining what level of education and experience is required of professionals in various fields, whether it's apprenticeship, college, whatever. Government involvement in that process has resulted in massive destruction of human capital, as documented in Alex's ebook.

It's not the 1950s anymore. Private sector union membership is down to 7.2%. This is a completely different situation than in Germany.

If we are to move toward the internship/apprenticeship model, it will require a social change wherein businesses are encouraged (or rewarded) to fund what are essentially cost-bearing projects.

One possibility is to adopt a contract model where apprentices are bound for some period of time post-tutelage. That idea won't sit well with some, I'm sure.

"One possibility is to adopt a contract model where apprentices are bound for some period of time post-tutelage. That idea won’t sit well with some, I’m sure."

I have children and I call this "parenting". But I will be free one day.

Actually, in some industries the apprentices are not cost-bearing but profitable. They have to stay with the company for 3 years, they don't earn much (often less than 50 € per month) because they still live with their parents and you can give them the boring, dirty, routine jobs.
Many hairdressers in Germany survive because of this cheap labor.

In my law firm ( , I used them as cheap typists and secretaries.

Union shops in this country feel the same way about apprentices. They will most often take the maximum they are allowed because of the lower wage costs.

I understand the cheap labor angle, but someone has to train and delegate work to interns/apprentices and that means reduced productivity for one or possibly more higher wage staff.

in other words, the cheap labor on one side of the equation sometimes (often?) does not compensate for the lowered productivity on the other side of the equation.

But yes, I'm saying that if the company can lock down interns/apprentices for some period after they reach non-ZMP status, it may be worth the investment.

By the way, this is a similar argument to offshoring. Someone always has to do the babysitting - those costs were, IMO overlooked when this whole experiment went parabolic.

The military is for all intents and purpose is a technical college, as ex-submarine sailor, the advance electronics training has given me a career in IT field for 24 years.

In my trade, there are lots of 1st and second year apprentices about looking for work. Call them dropouts, they couldn't cut it and their employer let them go.

The Canadian situation is somewhere between what was describe in Germany (which I suspect is looking at how it was in some utopian past) and the US. The trades are regulated in the sense that certain work is required to be done by a certified tradesman. Electrical, refrigeration, some plumbing but certainly commercial/industrial pipefitting, some welding, natural gas, elevator mechanics, and on and on. The certifications are valid across jurisdictions in Canada, with exceptions (Quebec, natural gas). One gets certification by working under an certified tradesman for the number of years specified, and includes the requirement for some schooling, typically 4-8 weeks per year. Some community colleges offer pre apprenticeship programs where you can take the schooling and if showing any ability, will probably get a job offer. Then after your apprenticeship period, you write an exam, called the Interprovincial. With the employer signing off on your hours and qualifications, and the exam, you get a certificate of qualification in the trade.

As a tradesman it is a great opportunity. The pay is pretty good to excellent depending on the specialty. Once the ticket is acquired, you can then specialize within your field, with manufacturers education programs and the like.

As an employer the challenge is finding individuals with ability and the willingness and discipline to work. In my trade, refrigeration, an apprentice costs you money for a couple of years. It takes 10 years to be fully trained and have the experience to troubleshoot.

My previous employer, who is now retired, trained something like 30 mechanics over his career. Businesses are very often small, an owner with 4 or 5 mechanics. I have trained one, and am in the process of training another. I have had three who just didn't cut it, didn't have the ability to endure the fog of confusion that comes with learning something complicated.

The shine is coming off high education. The payback is great for a few, but for most it is far too expensive and means working in a cubicle. There is a renewed interest in the trades right now, especially since the demand is high.

What annoys me is having first to teach a kid how to do basic things like read a tape measure in inches, read a thermometer. Schools are a glorified 12 year day care scheme. And most kids have no hands on ability with tools. I learned how to swing wrenches and the like keeping my car running when I was a teenager, poor but eager. Having to teach someone otherwise well adjusted how to use a screwdriver or how to tighten a bolt is strange for me. Where were their fathers?

"Where were their fathers?"

....busy teaching them how to use computers?

I dropped out my junior year of high school because I thought it be a lot more fun to going backpacking through Europe for 4 months. It was.

Since then I've attended community college getting a 2 year Associates Degree in 4 years because I took every class that look interesting and a guidance couselour "made me" put in for graduation and transfer to UC Davis. I dropped out of Davis and transferred into GA State where I've been taking classes in Philosophy and Economics while I load trucks day in and day out for UPS every early AM while most of the east coast sleeps.

At 31 years old, I'm 3 classes away from my undergraduate, have run and lost a State Senate race, can debate Hayek and Keynes with economics Professors, debate Nietzsche and Schopenhauer with philosophy professors, and talk occupy politics with working class youth, unemployed workers and homeless bums on the streets of Atlanta. The sooner this nation's policymakers realize it has a generation of wasted and neglected resources sitting idle or flipping burgers the sooner we can harness those resources for a more productive economy....

I've learned from life and i've learned from classrooms. You can't exchange one for the other... both are needed.

I am back at university myself at 36 and I think you are doing the right thing. You have been having an interesting life, that's the main thing that should count. Don't stop experimenting!

I wonder if you saw Steven Erlanger's ode to German apprenticeship in Sunday's NYT.

Large companies, which we adore and go out of our way to help in this country, have little use for traditional "apprenticeships". They're doing just fine with their current system, which allows them to have unpaid apprentices (interns) just about whenever they want, as long as the kids are doing it for college course credit. The whole unpaid-internship-for-course-credit dynamic is little more than a scam, a way for large businesses to get free low-level labor that is heavily subsidized by the federal government (via federally backed student loans).

How can a high school dropout provide any value to a company as an "apprentice" above what that company is already getting for free from a college student? In order to have an apprentice system in this country, you'll have to tear down the unpaid internship model, and that will require significant reform in the college/student loan arena. I don't see that coming any time soon.

The whole unpaid-internship-for-course-credit dynamic is little more than a scam

It IS a scam. And difficult for kids who must work and earn money. And seems very feudal.

"In Germany, 97 percent of students graduate from high school, but only a third of these students go on to college." This sentence is already completely misleading. In Germany, we have (depending on the state) two or three different types of high schools. Only the top tier high school even allow the student to go to university. Diplomas from the lower tier high schools do not qualify for college entrance. The quality of students and of the education offered between these schools is extremely different. For example, in my home state of Bavaria, you cannot graduate from the kind of top-tier high schools if you are not sufficiently proficient in two foreign languages. Many students learn more than two. Imagine that in the US.

Many youngsters who go into vocational training in Germany go to college AFTER completion of their apprenticeship. They are older (at least 21 or 21), wiser and they realise that continuing to study may after all not be so bad, even if you don't immediately earn anything.
It also has to be considered that for students who did not graduate from the top tier high schools ("Gymnasium"), completing an apprenticeship in 3 years with good marks can qualify apprentices to enter college. For some, it is the only way to college.

So- crime still does not pay?
It is a very popular form of employment.

College does not elimate the apprenticeship process. Virtually all professions/jobs require an apprenticeship. We just don't call it that anymore; we call it on the job training or internship or mentoring or something. Few people are competent to practice their profession coming out of school: be it high school, college, or graduate school. It takes practice to learn a profession; the more guidance one has from an experienced individual the more productive the learning process is likely to be.

College still works these days but apprenticeship is indeed a big help too.

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