The Allure of Europe's Youth Apprenticeship Connection

Policymakers in the U.S. have been fascinated by European youth apprenticeship systems for decades.

These national systems transition more than half of their high school students to postsecondary education and into the workforce, and are credited widely for the enviably low youth unemployment rates and globally competitive companies, notably, in Germany and Switzerland.

In these countries, the apprenticeship is deeply integrated within formal education, functioning as a dual system that blends learning in the classroom with applied learning in the workplace. The foundation of these dual systems is broad industry participa-tion and investment across sectors. While deeply embedded into these societies, these systems undergo regular reforms. In recent decades, efforts have focused on helping apprentices pursue further education after their initial experience as an apprentice.

Registered Participants
By contrast, apprenticeships in the U.S. evolved separately from formal secondary education systems. The passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 decided that the comprehensive high school, the model that continues today, could provide both academic and vocational training in one central place.

The passage of the Fitzgerald Act 20 years later established the national registered apprenticeship system. This further reinforced the distance between apprenticeship and vocational education, not so much by what it did, but by what it did not do. The New Deal-era act focused on labor standards to protect and prevent the exploitation of apprentices as cheap labor. Unlike in Europe, the Fitzgerald Act did not establish a policy infrastructure for organizing and financing apprenticeships. Labor unions and private employers themselves were largely expected to play these roles. This cemented a fragmented policy framework for American vocational education and apprenticeship that persists today.

Even without this historical foundation, attempts have been made to make youth apprenticeships work here. Among the largest was the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, a nearly $2 billion federal investment in 1994. Ultimately School-to-Work gave states the flexibility to support activities beyond apprenticeship such as career awareness and work-based learning. But a handful of the states that received grants through School-to-Work focused on a youth apprenticeship model, including Wisconsin, where pro-grams continue to this day.

Latest Wave
The next phase of youth apprenticeship experimentation emerged in the 1990s with an influx of foreign direct investment in the U.S. by European manufacturing firms looking to meet workforce needs. In these models, multiple employers in a single region came together to design and implement youth apprenticeship programs. Early success with high-profile examples like Apprenticeship 2000 and Apprenticeship Charlotte made North Carolina a particular focal point of youth apprenticeship innovation.

Today, a handful of states such as Colorado are leading a third wave of experimentation with youth apprenticeship. The European systems again are a source of inspiration with particular interest today in the Swiss model, which is seen as more permeable than the German system for students to pursue further education.

Together these waves of experimentation help explain today’s diverse landscape of youth apprenticeship programs.