Apprenticeships need more respect

Ed Luce in the FT reports on increased interest in the German model of apprenticeships:

Germany channels roughly half of all high-school students into the vocational education stream from the age of 16….More than 40 per cent of Germans become apprentices. Only 0.3 per cent of the US labour force does so.

Luce, however, thinks that “In the US that would be seen as too divisive, even un-American.” In the United States we obsess about getting a college degree so much that anything else looks like second best. But what is so special about college? As I said in Tuning in to the Dropping Out:

The U.S. 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.” Most of them, however, crash before they reach the end of the road–some drop out of high school and then more drop out of college. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to knowledge.

German apprenticeship students are well-educated, highly skilled and employable and they are in no way second-class relative to college graduates. Going to college is neither necessary nor sufficient to be well educated. Moreover, as Luce goes on to note, even for those who do complete a college degree, all is well no longer.

Fifteen per cent of taxi drivers in the US have a degree, up from 1 per cent in 1970. Likewise, 25 per cent of sales clerks are graduates, against 5 per cent in 1970. An astonishing 5 per cent of janitors now have a bachelor’s degree.


Well, my perception is that the apprentices *are* lower status or "second class" relative to those college education (my German wife confirms). They may have similar income to those students who have Abitur, but the status is lower (remember, it is Germany, degrees and titles matter a lot there).

I agree, an apprenticeship offers a path to a solid middle class life. But reaching the top income quartile is nearly impossible. It's a great option for many, but not the same as a university degree.

Turning it around, is a university degree the same as a university degree? That is, is a US university B.A. or B.S. from an average university equivalent to a German university degree? In status, income expectation, etc.? Is the most common German degree equivalent to an Associates or a Bachelor's?

I don't know the answers, which is why I ask. The average American college graduate--making $56K at 25 if employed full-time--may not be in the top quartile ($77K+ in the US). Though some will reach it eventually. On the other hand, the threshold for the top quintile in the US is roughly $100K, and I've certainly heard anecdotal accounts of plumbers and electricians who make that much, after an apprenticeship (not right after, obviously).

It depends, of course, though I'd say the answer is "mostly, yes" now they've all switched to bachelor's.
German Bachelor's graduates entry level wage at 23-25 for full time positions is €30.000-45.000 depending on the location (less in the East, less for Humanities)
Germany has a two tier university system (Universität/Fachhochschule), the main difference being that a FH bachelor is more "applied science" i.e. you can't go on to a doctorate (unless via a University M.A.).
Most Universität and especially Fachhochschule graduates do great and eventually reach good incomes, except in some specialties. I'd say that for Universität graduates the later income disparities are much higher than for FH graduates, which is the "safer" way (you're more likely to get employment right after graduation).
In Germany universities are free to study. Funding depends on student demand, so there's an overproduction of taxi driver graduates in the humanities after Universität graduation. With a FH diploma you'll sometimes hit an early glass ceiling, but if you work a lot you can still make it to the top no problem.

Well, apprenticeships programs are also available to high school students, in Germany the Gymnasium. They do indeed retain the status of lower quality and lower status, although that is changing and there are follow-up qualifications like Meister or Techniker, which can help you reach higher positions in your company.
There is also an in-between degree called duales Studium, which means that you apply at a company for such a training and you have half of your work at the company and the rest at a school, which teaches courses that have related subject matter; like economics, higher math and so on.

I think most university titles in Germany are AT LEAST on the same level with the US, but they are organized differently.
We have several degrees that are similar to American degrees:
Bachelor and Master are equal to US standards, although it is normal in Germany to continue to a Master, most bachelors are not accepted as a real degree with companies, especially in the STEM fields.
The recently dismantled Diplom, was a 5-year degree equivalent of a Master Sc. and in the STEM fields the only option to graduate with a degree.

The Doctorate is the same as the US Phd, although the status of such a degree is still higher than in the US, especially if you achieved it in a technical field. Even today most chemists and biologists dont graduate without it!

The doctorate in Germany may have the same status as doctorates in the US, but I believe there are very important differences between US and German doctorates, at least in STEM fields. First, the time-to-degree for doctorates in Germany is far less variable than in the US. If you aren't "ready to finish" in the US, you keep researching. In Germany you must be exceptionally deficient in the usual 3-4 year time period. Second, in Germany your thesis is graded by your professors. This isn't done in the US. The US ideal (or at least the conceit), is that your work is of high-quality, original scholarship on the level of what your professors are capable of. Thus it can't really be graded. In Germany this is not the case: students receive grades of "excellent", "good", or "passable" (or something similar; I don't remember the exact terms). Third, in Germany virtually everyone finishes a Masters before moving on to doctoral research. In the US this is far less uniform. Some departments at some schools will do this; many instead admit bachelors graduates directly to doctoral programs.

@Greg: Alas, a STEM doctorate in Germany typically takes around five years.

While it is less likely to reach the top when starting as an apprentice, there is still an acceptable chance to do so. For example, Marcel Ospel, previous CEO of UBS started as an apprentice. Similarily, you see lots of high ranked positions filled this way in large German corporations like Würth (

Good point. The general manager of IBM Germany, Martina Koederitz, has only completed a Berufsakademie, a form of apprenticeship with college classes. The education is much more applied than theoretical but today ends with a Bachelor degree.

I object. I did the German aprrenticeship and went to the university afterwards. First: My work experience made my decision what degree to choose way more professional. I knew what I wanted to know and why and how to achieve it. All those "Abitur"-Students did not. Second: I was able to live on a way higher standard of living during my time as a student because I could earn a decent wage in a part-time job. Third: Finding work afterwards was way easier because I already had years of job experience and hat gotten a better degree than my fellow students.

And this goes for every of my fellow apprentices that I know of that went to the universities afterwards. They did way better than the other graduates, no matter wether they completed their university degree or not.

One main advantage of choosing an apprenticeship is that the bet that you place ("this education is going to provide me a job") is way more secure than choosing a university degree: In most cases there is no apprenticeship without market demand for workers. Universities don't care for the job market demand, they care for the demand of their degrees. And the demanding ones are usually young people without any professional experience.

And since the Bologna-Reforms the difference is even steeper. A bachelor graduate spent three years in a university. The apprentice three years on the job. Who - if competing for the same job offer - is going to get the position?

>in most cases there is no apprenticeship without market demand for workers.

You do realize how subversive your comment is, don't you. This challenges the assumptions of a huge and powerful industry with deep ties to government and funding. The idea that somehow the market would dare demand skills or workers would put 3/4 of the educational establishment out of work.

You do realize that in Germany universities are mostly public? The 3/4 that you are taking about, might be out of work, but I don't know how you can get the impression that public universities allocate resources in sync with job market demand. Also, You do realize that even The private us-degrees are a constant topic of discussion because of their assumed inflated prices? (If not look no further than this very blog) and lastly, the competitiveness of German apprenticeships against the more and more losing German public degree might be illustrated the best by the success of the new "duale studiengänge": an apprenticeship that you graduate from with a bachelor degree. A growing number of high profile companies in Germany don't even consider public-degree applicants anymore and prefer their own homegrown "bachelor apprentices"

I think you missed the irony, he wasn't disagreeing with you ... (just sayin')

@Olaf: No I did not get the irony. Of course this is just due to the hassle of mobile browsing :)

It may be that the part of the push for college is a result of the manner in which we generally treat those in service- and other 'no-college-needed' jobs. I'm always hearing that 'incentives matter' around here. Here's an incentive that matters: If you push farther in school that you (maybe) ought to, then you'll reduce the likelihood of getting stuck in a job in which you're required to continue smiling whilst you're shit upon.

It's great that we have so many skill-specific community college programs out there training machinists, auto mechanics, paralegals, respiratory technicians, and so forth, but a combination of low wages and low social status does not properly incentivize people to choose these careers.

I would also add that from birth, kids are told:

1) they're special and can do anything they set their minds to and
2) going to college will open up all sorts of opportunities

The problem is, obviously, both of those are blatantly untrue for the vast majority of people.

Hold on. Regarding #2, I believe there is growing awareness and anxiety among parents and students of the increasingly dubious cost/benefit analysis associated with status quo higher education. The situation feels ripe for alternatives...

How long has that attitude been prevalent for the US? I can certainly see it talking to present-day twenty-somethings working retail (where complaining about this is a pretty reliable subject for conversation). But I've also heard stories from older generations about the people who started from the bottom and were proud of it...but the bottom in their case seemed to have a bit more respect for the worker. And room for advancement. Hard to compare anecdotes, though.

So a college degree in 2013 is effectively the same in terms of entry to the labor force as a high school diploma was in 1973 or earlier. Consider the reaction if the government had successfully started charging tuition fees for public schools, or for some reason required new entrants to the labor force to post a bond, equal to a one year's worth of wages in your chosen trade, to get a certificate that allowed employers to hire you (maybe it isn't technically illegal to hire someone without the certificate, but the certificate grants needed exemptions from certain labor regulations and immunity from some lawsuits).

Anyway, what is the big deal?

I agree with the need for more vocational education and better streaming of students in this direction. But I need to pick a small, somewhat unrelated point. Everything I have read about Germans says that they are obsessed with Ph.Ds. How can a country so obsessed with Ph.Ds., not consider anyone with just a vocational education of lower rank? (As I type I see that Londenio makes a similar comment.)

I don't think that's incompatible. Americans are obsessed with ivy league, Harvard etc. pedigree. And yet not everyone goes to Harvard for various reasons.

So yes, to some degree, having a vocational education *is* considered lower rank. But so would having the same job that these people have, even if based on some degree instead. I think the outcome is roughly comparable (between the different ways of "getting there") for most individuals, with a majority of them having better skills through that vocational route, but a minority suffering from a lower "social mobility" i.e. they have a bit less chances should they try to ascend the social ladder higher than originally anticipated. Germans can live with that trade-off seemingly, whereas Americans may feel better if they can always say they have college education, even if it just meant partying around a bit before going on to flip burgers for a living.

You could argue that college is remedial high school for stuff you should have learned in hs but did not. I myself learned little to nothing in hs, aside from fighting, and this from 'good schools' in the NE USA, and learned everything I needed afterwards, en route to my advanced degrees in college. Also you could argue that if there's a Great Stagnation you need higher education to keep the potential workforce more occupied while they await retirements and/or deaths from the Baby Boomers. And it's not "janitors" but "sanitation engineers"!

I recently talked to a retiring school principle in my son's junior high school. He recounted that 30 years ago there were tool-oriented shop classes in junior high and by high school, those students were working on metal lathes, welding machines, etc. Those programs were phased down when the local foundries, machine shops and factories began to modernize, reduce work forces or out source. Families quit putting their kids in those classes, and the programs withered. I recount that story, because I think that people who promote the German system of trade and tech programs seem to imply that if we trained more people with industrial skills, that we would have a lot more of those jobs. The causation is less clear. Also, in the basic trades like plumbing, electrical work and carpentry, there is a major fallacy of composition when people point to those jobs paying well as an alternative to college. How many more of those tradesmen could the economy absorb if we trained more of them. I live in a big house with largely non-leaking plumbing and modern wiring, and I am not unusual. We built, plumbed and wired ourselves into a housing bubble, so it is not clear that we need many more such people. And if we did, wages would drop rapidly.

Wages have not dropped rapidly for the blue collar handymen working in the DC area, to service manual labor clueless bobos in the Beltway. These guys got rich from unclogging the toilets of the literati, though it's cheaper to employ them now than 30 years ago.

Good points and I would also observe that many of these jobs are cartels like plumbers who are journeymen and licensed, bonded, and unionized. So which is it?

The real reason apprenticeships won;t take of in the US is because employers have so little interest in training and would never endorse a scheme which requires (as in the German case) them to have their own journeymen spend part of their time supervising workers who are not even their own employees but kids from a general pool of trainees. The German system relies on compulsory employer participation to reduce the fear of poaching (it doesn't, in fact, eliminate poaching, but the risk of it is at least spread equally). American business would never go for something like that.

That's not true, nothing about the German system it's compulsory. It relies, however, on a lower turnover rate of employees. For whatever reason, Germans tend to switch jobs much less than Americans. If an employer can expect an employee to stay for ten years, it makes sense to invest in him.

"For whatever reason, Germans tend to switch jobs much less than Americans."

Pension-related? Just asking.

A) There are much harder constraints to fire employees and
B) There's a higher stigma associated with a worker who is switching jobs. If the intervals are too short than the industry standart it might be considered a sign of low performance or unability to integrate into the team.

"If an employer can expect an employee to stay for ten years, it makes sense to invest in him."

Not only that, but also the apprentice gets a much lower wage, than the average worker. Under a scheme where unions enforce high wages, as in Germany, apprenticeships are a common way for small businesses to get cheap labor.

That is quite a number of misconceptions. The apprentice actually is an employee of the shop that does the training. And I second the points about cheap labor and no compulsory participation.

Ultimately, the market would decide the success of such a program---if only it were offered in the U.S.

Consider first chart here

and this table,_2012Q4_%28%25%29.png&filetimestamp=20130418091546

Resolving the paradox of "Yet US employers insist the shortage of skilled labour is a growing problem" (no data given, natch), with "salary inflation, which has not happened" is indeed that replacing our college-educated engineers (of which we have no shortage) with apprentice-educated engineers would allow employers to pay them less. That's the unspoken goal here.

Fifteen per cent of taxi drivers in the US have a degree, up from 1 per cent in 1970. Likewise, 25 per cent of sales clerks are graduates, against 5 per cent in 1970. An astonishing 5 per cent of janitors now have a bachelor’s degree.

I suspect these numbers are inflated by immigrants and where they conducted their survey. The Nigerian Ph.D driving a cab is a real phenomenon, but not highly relevant to domestic education policy.

I do think that we have overemphasized college education at the expense of the skilled trades and one thing that makes the skilled trades more attractive today is the increasingly high cost of college education. There is a community college in Iowa that offers a one year program training for electrical linework. The average starting pay is something like $18 per hour and almost nobody defaults on their debt.

Summarizing the commentary so far:

Londenio and JF attribute this to low social status.
Ed doesn’t find this to be a problem, similar in kind to some sort of “participation tax”. Um...
Ray cites failure of primary education requiring remedial college-level education.
liberalarts lives in some sort of fortress immune to depreciation.
Alex thinks employers are disinterested in training workers, and so must be compelled to train them.

Lack of interest in vocational schooling stems from the confluence of student indoctrination and parental inability to tell their children “No”.

Public educators in this country got a hold of some data correlating college education with increased earnings. They confused correlation with causation, and ended up engaging on a thirty year (and counting) crusade to encourage students down the college path to prosperity.

From their earliest years, students are plied with this mantra and all but convinced that only losers don’t go to college. This is reinforced by all sorts of popular media and anecdotal evidence, but most influentially, by the 8 hours a day they spend in school, in front of self-righteous teachers giving them the keys to economic liberation, as long as they follow the recipe provided.

But 16 year olds are not influenced by thoughts of their future social status (as evidenced by rampant sexting). They are worried about looking like a loser in front of their peers. The adults within our education system explicitly and implicitly ascribe that label to anybody that doesn’t go to college and students get the message. Parents allow the charade because as a society, we’ve lost the ability to tell our children “No” (and at this point, the parents were indoctrinated with this tripe as well).

But the recipe for economic prosperity is not satisfied by a college degree. The recipe for economic liberation requires the acquisition of value-adding skills and the ability to advertise those skills to the marketplace. College degrees help with the latter and are a mixed bag with the former. Yet the former is where your true economic power stems from. The result is evidenced by the gainful employment many of todays college graduates are able to find in the unskilled labor market.

Vocational workers are in high demand in business. Someone has to fix and maintain existing infrastructure. Someone has to rapid-prototype the designs. Someone has to understand manufacturing processes (even if mass manufacturing happens abroad).

Yes, employers don’t like to train as they used to, but that is because skills are no longer proprietary to a single company, not because they’ve become less benevolent. Transferrable skills empower employees to leave abusive employers, but they also put the onus on employees to finance the acquisition of those skills. Once acquired though, employers bid top dollar (high middle-class) for someone that is able to work a metal lathe and doesn’t have a substance abuse problem. Compelling employers pay to for it is one answer. But willingness to pay doesn't seem to be the problem (see most recent college debt figures). People are just paying for the wrong training.

Leave your ivory towers and observe how life works for most Americans.

I personally agree very much with most of this. "People are just paying for the wrong training" - puzzles me too. Americans seem so pragmatic and flexible in the core functions of the market, e.g. starting a business etc., but then "going to college" for a liberal arts education (and for having some fun) - and not only that but rather paying HUGE amounts of money for it (consider that German university education, with which the vocational training there competes, is largely free by comparison!) seems like some sort of societal dogma that I just can't fully rationalise.

As Charles Murray has said, the B.A. is the work of the devil.

Perhaps the benefits of an education are not purely economic. Heresy, I know.

Bankers played on the vanity, laziness, and greed of people to sell them investments that they couldn't possibly make a return on...

Teachers " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " "...

This is an outstanding synthesis. I hereby designate you as the Official Comments Historian. There really should be such a person, who summarizes all the crazy comments and finally, Deus Ex Machina, gives the Correct Received Wisdom Answer. That would be you Frank!

As for this comment: "They are worried about looking like a loser in front of their peers" (re teenagers), that's a legitimate fear--and powerful motivator--isn't that precisely why "Suspect #1" (the Boston bomber boxer) went off? According to his uncle, he was a loser, probably perceived himself thus, and decided to go out with a bang, unfortunately for those around him.

No designation is necessary. Hopefully most people don't need any synthesis to see how out of touch those earlier comments are. God might be helpful in understanding Truth, but in case he's busy, opening one's eyes might be sufficient, Ray!

I would like to point out that by far not all of the German vocational training is about "skilled trades" and blue-collar work. As everwhere, the developed world has become a world of paper-pushers and so a lot of these vocational trainings are for clerical work of a broad sort (bank clerk, sales representative), which perfectly prepares for about 90 perc. of administrativ and and even middle-management jobs in the job market.

Important also to consider that German university education is so theoretical and practically useless (most professors have never had a job outside of academia for even a day) that it takes a German graduate student at least two years to find the photocopier or make himself familiar with the coffee machine. You can imagine that a vocational trainee can get some traction in the job market against that background...

I think that relaxing youth labor laws would improve our future work force as much as anything. Last year I paid my kids to weed a field on a piece work basis. I received dozens of calls from their friends' parents asking if their kids could come and work too. I declined at first but eventually allowed several to come if the parents supervised them. This turned into over 20 kids and the majority worked hard and thanked us for the opportunity to make a few bucks. This was a job that I hated as a kid, but then I had many more options available for work as a kid in the 70s. There is literally no way to legally hire someone under 16 in my state. Most of us won't hire 16 year olds either because there are many restrictive regulations on when they can work and what they can do. I guess we are supposed to hire 18 year olds without a clue of how the working world runs. Allowing businesses to hire younger workers at reduced rates would provide many "natural" apprenticeships.

The US and Germany also have a different attitude about employees and job security: in Germany, if you are an apprentice, you will have a job, even if there is a recession later in your career as a full time, full benefit employee.

In the US, if you are an apprentice, and there is a recession, good luck.

Before you equate or recommend something, be sure you understand the differences in terms of the implicit social safety net.

Yeah, but what kind of social safety net does a college student have? If you're an apprentice and the economy goes tits-up, at least you're not burdened with $50K in student debt.

'Yeah, but what kind of social safety net does a college student have?'

German universities are free - and students are health insured during this time. Apprentices are generally paid something of a wage (and the time spent and money earned counts for retirement benefits).

There is also a mixed form called the Duale Hochschule - 3 months of classroom study, 3 months working in a company, spread over 3 years. While working, the student is paid by the company (including paid vacation time, of course).

25 years ago, a founding editor of the journal, Cognitive Science, articulated a theory of "cognitive apprenticeship." Wikipedia has a better-than-stub article that cites Allan Collins in its first footnote on the topic. The basic idea was sparked by Collins' observation that formal schooling trained students on a "bicycle", when their job success would be evaluated by how well they drove a car. Many notice the disconnect, but the cognitive apprenticeship addressed it explicitly by trying to create more collaborative, social, embedded, even "authentic" experiences where those junior in knowledge work skills would learn from the more experienced. I myself was Allan Collins' cognitive apprentice in the early '90s, while interning at the thinktank, BBN. Since then, I have tried myself to engender more on-the-job experiences to mentor others. Grad school is an apprenticeship. Its fatal flaw: it only guides practitioners toward becoming mini-professors (a labor-glutted field). We need skilled math/science/social scientists to get practice in applying their training (and this only happens accidentally, on the job).

Good points, but there is a strong positive correlation between a good bicycle rider and a good car driver. So the signaling effect of having good grades in bicycle school is picked up by the car driver employer when it comes time to make a decision about hiring a car driver. Inefficient perhaps, but that's the western way.

I would LOVE to see data backing up this statement... Seems like teenagers ought to be the best drivers around!

Sounds like another great idea in this area and I always wonder why the regular forces of a free society/marketplace cannot bring about such results and rather seem to perpetuate the clearly dysfunctional status-quo...

I don't understand this constant concern over how many taxi drivers, sales clerks, janitors, etc. have college degrees? Yes, if their degrees were in STEM fields then there is some waste.

But if they have a BA, the untold numbers constantly remind us is not for imparting useful skills but rather to make the student a better citizens, more aware of the world, etc., then what is the problem?

Shouldn't we strive for taxi drivers, sales clerks and janitors who are better informed citizens, knowledgeable of the world and able to perhaps even engage in critical thinking? It is not like the goal of the BA program was to improve the students ability to do something useful for others, something that others would find valuable enough to pay the BA graduate to do. So, they got an education, then they got a job. Two reportedly unrelated activities in the Liberal Arts.

In STEM and in apprenticeships, the education increases the useful things you can do for others, therefore increasing the potential for a better job. The BA, is reportedly not designed to impart useful skills, but assuming a lack of personal or family wealth, they have to get a job upon graduation...with the skills they either had as freshmen or acquired outside of class.

"Shouldn’t we strive for taxi drivers, sales clerks and janitors who are better informed citizens, knowledgeable of the world and able to perhaps even engage in critical thinking?" --> I totally get that but suggest you don't need 50-100 K for that. You could (1) teach humanities in high school and instead cut out the pottery classes and cheerleading or (2) go for "non-schooling", an interesting new movement about which there are two current books by Kio Stark and Dale Stephens (and which is not the same as home-schooling). Just my $.02

I agree. However, there is a dichotomy in the discussion of the Liberal Arts. On the one hand, the program is argued as not being designed to improve a student's employability. It's all about becoming educated. But then there is the complaint that so many university graduates, especially those with BAs, are in jobs that don't require a college degree. But if the degree does not provide job skills, then why would one expect the student to end up in a job that requires a degree? And if so many graduates are getting degrees that are not designed to improve their job skills, then aren't employers being discriminatory when they require a degree and only hire such graduates when others could have the same job skills?

great comments.

Here in Switzerland, we have an apprenticeship program fairly similar to Germany's. Lots and lots of young people are apprentices. Companies perceive it as a civic duty to offer them. And these cover many, many professions. You can't get a job as a waitress without completing a suitable apprenticeship program.

The result is that people are awesomely well trained in whatever their profession is. A barber, an automechanic, a laboratory assistant -- all show up for their first day of work knowing exactly what to do and able to do it very well.

Perhaps even more than Germany, Switzerland provides lots of paths to cross over from vocational to academic tracks and vice versa at many points in one's life. The fact that both secondary and vocational education is basically free -- in fact, apprentices earn small salaries -- means that people can afford to do some trial and error in making career choices.

Compared to the US system that I grew up in, the advantages of this approach seem striking.

I live in Tacoma, Washington, one of the largest deep water ports on the west coast. It's a gritty, working class town. I did what every American is told: go to university and escape your mundane, proletarian upbringing. I did. I went to uni and got a degree in English Literature.

While there, I received the subtle message that men are assholes. Oftentimes class discussion revolved around how gender affects the characters we studied.

I am back in Tacoma working as a deckhand on a tugboat. I make a solid union wage, The years I spent in uni were a total waste, and I deeply regret it. I would have been better off taking diesel mechanics for two years. What a foolish idiot I was.

I have heard that the apprenticeships that do exist in the US are greatly tainted by nepotism. Thus one can't get to be say a plumbers apprentice unless you have an uncle in the trade. How much is this true in Germany (or Switzerland)? I wouldn't want to encourage a system that could only be accessed by those with connections.

There have been some comments implying that apprenticeships in the US don't work because it is too likely that an apprentice will leave the firm once he is trained, and so companies won't take this risk. Can this company risk be overcome by contractual agreements? Thus a firm agrees to apprentice a new student for four years only if the student then agrees to work for the firm as a journeyman for another four years. I think that might work as long as there was an escape clause for the first six months, in case the apprentice or the firm decides the other party is a total loser after a few months of apprenticeship.

"...unless you have an uncle in the trade. How much is this true in Germany (or Switzerland)?" --> non-issue in Germany.
"too likely that an apprentice will leave the firm once he is trained, and so companies won’t take this risk" (raised here and above) --> I think generally it isn't much of a problem; customarily people, espec. blue-collar, are not quite as mobile in Germany, a substantial part tend to stick with their employers/training companies and their geography. Can't fully explain that though.

Is not the point of the US system to waste enough potential human capital to avoid wage increases - it seems to have worked on that front, but perhaps too well?

And yet the median wage in the US is much higher than in Germany and youth unemployment is lower. Germany is not a paradise because of the apprentice system. There are certainly benefits to their system, as others have noticed, it means that people are better trained and so more capable and reliable. But it creates barriers to entry, which slows innovation and keeps prices higher, which encourages unemployment. The reality is that most jobs, even professional ones, need very little training anyway. The genius of modern day capitalism is to make the job so simple that the individual skills of workers are irrelevant. This is done by mechanization, scaling and then breaking jobs into simple components, and also by standardization. No one person can make a car on their own from scratch, but you can recruit farmhands to tighten one bolt at a time on an assembly line.

I don't know where you are getting this from. Youth unemployment is about twice as high in the US compared to Germany. Wages are difficult to compare, as cost of living is significantly lower in Germany.

You also have a very poor understanding how manufacturing works. What you said might have been true when they built the model T, but today an untrained person will not be able to work in a car assembly plant.

Good lord. 55 posts and NO ONE mentions race as the reason that "vocational channeling" won't work in the US? Seriously?

It's dreadfully simple. Vocational channeling would involve students making choices--or having choices made for them--based on academic achievement, and that would result in the overwhelming majority of blacks and Hispanics being put in the vocational program.

Even worse, most blacks and Hispanics wouldn't do as well in voc-ed as bright but non-intellectually inclined whites and couldn't even get those jobs.

Not that it would ever get that far; we'd have disparate impact lawsuits going on long before that point.

I'd welcome those on the right to advocate policies that don't encourage the evisceration of individuals who aren't at the tippy top of the economy, that strengthen the middle class, blue collar workers, work in general. It would be a welcome change- truly.

But I'm more than a little dubious that that's what this post is. Is the author proposing to use government funds to strengthen apprenticeships? To restructure the tax code, or our trade agreements, or laws permitting strong unions? Are many of the comments? I'm not seeing it.

Put some meat of the bones of the proposal, otherwise it just reads as another attack on the education system and liberal arts. "More respect" is one thing, a law is something else.

I think it is good to discuss this aspect more, and in more general ways,
before proposing certain political actions.

1. Be careful with data, like youth unemployment or "median" wages
Youth unemployment was last summer 3% in the south of Germany, but that was not always the case, and apprenticeship is not an automatic guarantee for a job later on.
My impression is, that the "average" GDP per capita is higher in the US, but when you look at "median" at PPP, this mostly disappears, especially, if you discount the substantially longer working hours to some degree.

2. I think the "respect" aspect is important.
You dont see this "disappearance of the middleclass" not so much in income distributions, but in the increasing separation of an upper class from the rest.
When you read the Murray books, there is something, which I think we do not really understand yet. This feeling of a destabilizing society into some “every man for himself”. When Folks like Francis Fukuyama wrote about “trust”, he and others also pointed out, that in former times the US had also a lot of associations, the fire fighters, the chamber of commerce in Pleasantville … : - )
In German TV series like “dahoam is dahoam” the feeling of Heimat is systematically woven into the live of normal people.
Places like Woodstock or Cold Springs always looked a little grey and artificial to me, compared to more vibrant small towns in Germany.

3. Apprenticeship in Germany also means 9 years main school only, and then they start to see the work world, slowly, and earn some money, instead of 12 + 2 years for similar things in many other countries.

@ Mark
Nepotism at apprenticeships, forget this in Germany. Of course the butcher will try to keep his son in the own business, but there is also the incentive for the son to get away a little bit from home, and to learn new things in other places. Here in East Germany there is some tradition of "Wanderjahre" after the apprenticeship to move around.
If you take a look at Box A1.1. Vocational education,
high numbers there are associated with AAA ratings

"German apprenticeship students are well-educated, highly skilled and employable and they are in no way second-class relative to college graduates"

I think this needs a citation. What Im seeing in the data is that Germany has historically had much higher unemployment rates than the US:

Moreover, while typically only about 10% of US unemployment over the 2003-2007 period were long-term unemployed (rising to 30% in the recession), the figure was around half for Germany during both recession and expansionary periods, higher than most OECD countries:

Maybe this has nothing to do with their apprenticeship system, but one has to wonder whether this is evidence that the non-college educated in Germany are systematically discriminated against in the labor market. At anyrate, I would not advice using Germany as the model for labor market reforms.

Part of what you are seeing in the high German unemployment rate a decade ago was the impact of German reunification where the East Germans were integrated into the labor force immediately but it took years to integrate them into actual employment.

Matthew makes several good points.

1., "German apprenticeship students are well-educated, highly skilled"

NOT student, well-educated, nor highly skilled.

They get of school after 9 years, because they do not learn much more of "theoretical".
And there are substantial issues with a substantial fraction of them in regard to education.
But employers have to deal with that, with full or overemployment. Not every job at a car repair center needs a full mechatronic guy.

Dont fall for the black/white simplifications. A few years ago, Germany was kind of the shithole in public perception, and now, with not SOO much change here, we are handled like the shiny white city on the hill. There is no milk and honey flowing here.

2. The numbers for unemployment and long term fraction were higher, because of the reunification situation. A lot of details about generous social minimum payments and general wage level to be said. Maybe I can compact this to that from a purely "homo economicus" point of view, unemployment rates in East Germany should be 1 -3 % higher : - )

3. to just carbon copy models from other countries is a sure way to disaster.
e.g. German unions have half the board seats in large corporation. I do NOT believe that this would work anywhere else, maybe in the nordic states.

In my experience as a university professor who really does teach undergraduates, I'd say that there has been a large decrease in standards.

Or more simply: yes, a college degree is now very similar to what a high school degree was. A college degree doesn't mean much.

There are different ways to slice the data, and the result depends on how you look at it. It is true that there has been considerable "grade inflation" so that getting an A is a lot more common than it used to be. And its certainly plausible that students just don't work as hard as they used to. But it is also true that college curricula in many fields, like math and science, are way, way more advanced than they used to be.

So I'd say it is untrue that a bachelors today is like a high school degree decades ago. In reality, at least for STEM majors, people with bachelors degrees today are considerably more skilled and knowledgeable than those with bachelors degrees in previous decades

The article fails to mention that kids are put on the vocational and non-college bound track at age 10 in Germany. At least this was the case when I was an exchange student at a german gymnasium (the college-track) years ago. Somehow it feels this would put a dampener on social mobility. I myself definitely would have assigned to a "future hairdresser" path at 10, as i lived in a working-class household where there was no requirement to do homework, be smart, etc. But as a teenager i developed some interest in academics and later a profession, went on to higher education, and am good at what i do (and certainly paid more than a factory worker, even a German one). Would I have been able to follow this path, as a late bloomer, in the German system?

Cathy, all

You make a very good point.

And a disclaimer here at the beginning: I am certainly not an expert in this matter.

Your argument was actually one of those, which led me, until about a week ago, to the position: come on, do the same K-12 school system like most of the other countries. When I look at the PISA results, it is at least not worse, and it is compatible to the rest of the World, and it also removes the argument that some social injustice is built early into the system.

We have this discussion going on in Germany since 1968.
Kind like Roe vs Wade and Gun rights in your place : - )

In the most states officially the selection is done by grades only / the teacher, but eager parents are of course pushing their kids in 4th grade.

People are fighting over how much influence the parents should have officially, and not just indirect, via grade training.

Multiple changes proposed, and experimented with: doing the selection at age 12 or 14, or doing kind of K-12 in “Gesamtschulen”.

And this is, where I looked for any evidence, googling “gesamtschule soziale ungleichheit”.
If that helps, they should be out in force, claiming this to be an advantage of the Gesamtschule.

I just skimmed through the 102 pages of
from the (trade) union research foundation, and dont see any clear argument towards positive results.

I looked up further, who is clearly negative, but without much evidence presented. as well, ending with citing a former proponent: if we would have known at this time, what we know now, we wouldn’t have done it.[the K-12 like] points out that in many other countries this lead to social segragation in good and bad school districts, gated communities, private schools,

and I may add personally this weird school voucher system, I am getting more and more adverse to.

Our German approach is more:

if we have problems with quality in the universal public school system, then fix them, instead of creating all kinds of detours for the special interest.

Just having an opportunity to work gives people respect and self esteem. For this it is important.

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