ago, I had the opportunity to visit youth apprenticeship programs throughout Europe. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the programs and wondered why we were not doing the same here in the U.S.
In the European model, all students attend elementary school, but by the end of 6th grade, decisions are made as to whether the student will pursue the academic track or move into vocational education. Approximately two-thirds of European students are relegated to the vocational track while one-third go on to the “gymnasium,” or academic track, leading to a university degree.
Coincidentally, those numbers parallel the picture in America, where fewer than 40 percent of our students graduate with a four-year degree. Unfortunately, many among the 60 percent without the university degree also lack the job training and skills needed to fill thousands of available jobs — what corporate America refers to as the skill gap.
The European model never will be accepted in America as is. No parents will allow their child to be tracked into a vocational program at the end of the 6th grade and perhaps not even at the end of 8th grade. However, a growing movement is underway in our country toward youth apprenticeship programs beginning in 10th grade.
Toward the end of his administration, President Obama proposed the concept of apprenticeship programs saying, “We need to do everything we can to make sure America’s young people get the opportunity to earn the skills and a work ethic that come with a job. It’s important for their future, and for America’s.” Early in his administration, President Trump issued an executive order expanding apprenticeships in America. The U.S. Department of Labor has assumed a leadership role in the growth of apprenticeship programs for high school students.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a Labor Department event in Charleston, S.C. In partnership with the Department of Education, a Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium has been established as a network of colleges and apprenticeship programs working in tandem to provide credit leading to associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.
In Charleston, Trident Technical College partners with the local school districts, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and local employers to offer an alternative pathway for high school students.
In 2014, the Charleston Metro Chamber conducted a talent gap analysis that showed rapid growth in jobs while the region’s students lacked the requisite skills to fill them. To meet the workforce demands, four area superintendents asked the chamber to identify the career readiness standards and competencies associated with the jobs. The schools, the college and the employers jointly launched the Charleston Regional Youth Apprenticeship Program.
Junior and senior high school students travel to Trident two to three days per week where they are enrolled in dual-credit classes. They also serve an apprenticeship in a local company for 10 hours per week. The summer between the junior and senior year of high school gives each student the chance to work full-time as paid apprentices. The chamber provides full scholarships to cover the tuition at Trident. By the time the students graduate from high school, they are well on their way to certification in their chosen field and have had two years of paid work experience.
Listening to the students in the program, I heard them say the apprenticeship provides them with relevant workplace experiences they would not ordinarily receive in school. Some said they were turned off by the lack of relevance in their high school classes, but now were fully engaged and motivated by learning as apprentices.
Gerrita Postlewait, superintendent in Charleston County, S.C., described the need to change the prevailing culture as vocational education had become a dumping ground for students of color. When I asked her why these programs were succeeding in Charleston, she said, “The situation here is ripe for change because there are employment opportunities, jobs that need to be filled, employees that are willing to establish apprenticeships, and there exists a collaboration between K-12 and higher ed to provide programs with corporate support.” (Read a related article
by Postlewait in this issue.)
Parents have shown a willingness to allow their children to enter apprenticeship programs when they see the likelihood of attaining skills and employment in jobs that typically pay more than what a college graduate might earn.
If the elements that exist in Charleston spread to other parts of the country, perhaps we will see a growth in valuable youth apprenticeship programs.