Some form of post-secondary education is increasingly necessary, even for jobs that were once learned on the job. But student debt remains a huge hurdle, and many end up spending time and money for degrees or certificates of dubious worth, as was noted last week.
One alternative is an apprenticeship model, where new employees acquire skills while earning a living. The model is widely used in Europe, and has particularly strong roots in Germany.
In the U.S., apprenticeships have been slow to catch on for a variety of reasons, but South Carolina is pushing the envelope with a program that connects young workers to companies that commit to train them on the job.
"When we started this back in 2007, we only had 90 companies that had apprenticeship programs," Brad Neese, the program's director, told NPR. "We've hit 670, which by the way, we only had 777 apprentices in 2007. And we've now serviced nearly 11,000 apprentices. So it's been a phenomenal growth."
Why is South Carolina making such rapid progress? "A state tax credit for companies doesn't hurt," NPR notes, "but at $1,000 per year per apprentice for four years, it's pretty modest. A big factor is Germany. Companies like BMW and Bosch have plants in the state and brought with them the German system of apprenticeships."
"I think that the German influence has been great," Neese says. "But we also have seen that it's just a process that makes sense."
Other states are benefiting from German influence as well. In Tennessee, the Chattanooga Community College has teamed up with Volkswagen on a three-year "mechatronics" degree that includes classroom and on-the-job work.
"But VW representatives admit that launching the first apprenticeship program in Chattanooga took some legwork," Triplepundit.com reports. "Both Tennessee’s State Board of Education and Chattanooga College had to be convinced that a program that integrated a college degree and automotive training and was taught and accredited completely on-site would really work."
Scrambling to copy Germany may not be a good idea, says Tamar Jacoby in the Atlantic. Jacoby recently visited apprenticeship programs at companies like Daimler, Siemens and Bosch, and came away believing that program should be copied, but that it wouldn't be a quick and easy thing to do. Much of it hinges on culture, she writes.
"The U.S. has its own tradition of apprenticeship going back many years. But like most kinds of vocational education, it fell out of fashion in recent decades — a victim of our obsession with college and concern to avoid anything that resembles tracking," Jacoby wrote. "Today in America, fewer than 5 percent of young people train as apprentices, the overwhelming majority in the construction trades. In Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent — in fields as diverse as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking and hospitality. And in Europe, what’s often called “dual training” is a highly respected career path."
Barriers to adoption here, she notes, include its very high cost, which ranges from $40,000 per worker up to $170,000, a burden that falls on the employer and that Germans companies seem willing to bear but Americans would likely balk at.
Another challenge is that Germany has standardized skill sets so that skills learned in one industry or company translate smoothly to other jobs.
"What makes dual training work, every manager told us," Jacoby writes, "are the standardized occupational profiles, or curricula, developed by the federal government in collaboration with employers, educators and union representatives. Every young machinist training anywhere in Germany learns the same skills in the same order on the same timetable as every other machinist."
The key to adapting the German model, Jacoby says, is to pick the pieces that work and adapt them in part. Make sure that early efforts succeed, she adds, or else the entire model will be abandoned.