COVER STORY: Merging Old with NewBy Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week
Apprenticeships Couple Academics with On-the-Job Training
C O V E R S T O R Y
If there is one thing on which higher education leaders agree, it is this: America’s college and university system is not now preparing millions of young adults for successful careers.
The evidence is all-too-familiar: just 30 percent of young adults earn a bachelor’s degree by age 27; in today’s sluggish economy, teen and young adult unemployment rates have reached levels not seen since the Great Depression.
Some observers blame the American education system itself, criticizing its one-size-fits-all, everyone-should-go-to college approach.
“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood,” said Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice… and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation.”
Various versions of the classroom-based approach have produced only modest gains in achievement and attainment, even as many other nations have been out-educating the United States. Political and education leaders have been scrambling to devise more pathways that will lead students to a good job with decent pay, if not necessarily a college degree.
One of the pathways gaining currency is something with roots older than the country itself: apprenticeships, the transfer of skills from one generation to another through supervised,
But while apprenticeships have been around since before Colonial times — Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin were among those who famously served apprenticeships in their youths — their modern comeback comes with a new twist, being coupled with academic programs at community colleges.
Today’s apprentices can master skills, earn a paycheck and get a college degree all at the same time. They work in traditional construction trades, which have always embraced apprenticeships, but also in skilled occupations such as computer operator, machinist, dental laboratory technician, tool and dye maker, electronic technician and many more. Once primarily the province of labor unions, apprenticeships today also involve management and government working together.
Community colleges increasingly are getting involved in apprenticeship programs as educators strive to produce a workforce to fill the jobs of today, but also be adaptable enough to work in emerging fields.
In other countries, apprenticeships already are a mainstream route to career success. In Switzerland, Austria and Germany, apprenticeships provide training for more than half of young people. There and elsewhere, apprenticeships have been grown to include information technology, finance, advanced manufacturing, and maritime occupations. Germany has the oldest and best-known apprenticeship system. It offers programs leading to recognized qualifications in about 350 different occupations.
In this country, community college apprenticeship programs comprise a relatively small percentage of the estimated 470,000 apprentices registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. About one-third of registered apprentices receive their academic instruction at community colleges, figures show. Most programs are undertaken by employers. But a report by the Center for American Progress, written by economist Robert I. Lerman, argues that more collaboration between employers and community colleges holds great promise.
“Apprenticeship programs offer an array of advantages over pure postsecondary education programs,” Lerman wrote. “Since apprenticeship openings depend on employer demand, mismatches between skills taught and supplied and skills demanded in the work place are unusual. Apprenticeships provide workers with a full salary so that participants can earn while they acquire valued skills. Apprentices learn in the context of real work settings and attain not only occupational skills but other work-related skills, including communication, problem solving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of coworkers.”
“Collaboration between community colleges and apprenticeship programs makes sense for several reasons. Worker success in occupations requires that they gain not only content knowledge about their field but also other skills, including problem solving, used in the context of the occupation as well as on other jobs. For many occupations, community colleges are well-positioned to provide the academic-based instruction but cannot deliver the necessary nonacademic skills and occupational expertise. These require learning in the context of productive work and real operations, the type of learning that comes with apprenticeship training.”
Several barriers have limited interactions between apprenticeship programs and community colleges. Sponsors of apprenticeships, usually employers, can find that community colleges do not offer courses well-tailored to the apprentice’s needs. Equipment at the college may be dated, or the courses may meet at inconvenient times or not be offered at all. Colleges may be slow to develop new courses that are required as new programs or new technologies in existing programs arise.
Still, some states already have well-established apprenticeship programs in which community colleges have an active role:
Apprenticeships can full a critical workforce need. Nearly half of all jobs in the next decade are likely to demand skills that require postsecondary training and learning on the job, but not necessarily a four-year degree. These careers range from health and information technology workers to mid-level office occupations, including supervisors and middle managers.
But apprenticeships can serve a larger purpose. According to an influential report issued by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011, apprenticeships also “advance a broader pedagogical hypothesis: that from late adolescence onward, most young people learn best in structured programs that combine work and learning, and where learning is contextual and applied.”
The report — Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century — said the apprenticeship approach can be of particular benefit for students with developmental or remedial needs, providing a “structure to support the transition from adolescence to adulthood lacking for the majority of young people in the U.S. Apprenticeships provide increasingly demanding responsibilities and challenges in an intergenerational work setting that lend a structure to each day.”
The Harvard report has resulted in the Pathways to Prosperity Project, under which six states (Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee) will devise programs that focus on ensuring that many more young people complete high school, attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market and enter a career while leaving open the prospect of further education.
“It is long past time that we broaden the range of high-quality pathways that we offer to our young people, beginning in high school,” said Schwartz, who heads the project. “The lessons from other countries strongly suggest that this might be the single most promising strategy for greatly increasing the percentage of young adults who earn a postsecondary degree or credential that prepares them to embark on a meaningful career.”
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© 2013 Community College Week (ISSN 2328-2045)
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