Voices in Education

Youth Apprenticeship is Back, Again
The idea of creating formal apprenticeships starting in high school has appeared and faded more than once. During the 1980s and ’90s it emerged as a response to fears that Germany and Japan were threatening the United States’ leadership in manufacturing and inspired the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. Wisconsin began a youth apprenticeship system around that time that persists today. Other initiatives have emerged recently after “college for all” and standardized testing have failed to improve the education of all students and China has become the dominant source of manufactured goods.

Southeastern states have become an important locus of activity as governors have made economic development a high priority and improved education as a means of achieving it. They have succeeded in attracting German firms such as Mercedes, BWM, and Siemens to locate factories there, importing their apprenticeship programs and inspiring domestic companies to follow suit. As a result, youth apprenticeship is growing in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and elsewhere. To build on this momentum, the US Department of Labor in December 2020 made $42 million in Youth Apprenticeship Readiness Grants to states and organizations and has contracted with four “intermediaries” to support the movement, concentrating on growing sectors such as information technology, advanced manufacturing, and health care.

Youth apprenticeship fits neatly into career pathways initiatives. The slogan, “college AND career ready,” reflects an emerging consensus that young people are more likely to understand why certain school subjects are important if they have an idea of what they might do when they grow up. Telling students, “You’ll need this someday,” isn’t as effective as saying, “Entrepreneurs need to do the math,” or, “Health care professionals have to know science and communicate clearly, orally and in writing.” The point isn’t to put students on a fixed path but to help them find a goal to motivate and guide them. Apprentices experience firsthand the relevance of academic subjects when they are called upon to draft internal memos or analyze statistics for quality control.

Youth apprenticeship is distinctive from “traditional” apprenticeships, which, in the United States, are concentrated in the construction trades and predominantly enroll adults (mean age at start: 29). Because youth apprentices are still in school, the education component also looms much larger. This includes Related Technical Instruction (RTI), but when apprentices begin as high school students, they continue in academic courses as well. Dual enrollment is an especially attractive arrangement. With their regional scope and economic development mission, community colleges often have well-equipped shops and labs, well-qualified CTE instructors, and close ties to employers. Ideally youth apprenticeships continue beyond high school graduation and include continued study toward an associate’s degree and the opportunity to go on in higher education.

Apprenticeship can be valuable for any student. In Switzerland it has been tightly linked to postsecondary education with the result that 70% of youth are apprentices. But students who need it most are the ones who don’t learn especially well by sitting in classrooms. The workplace can be an alternative learning environment—a place where converting decimals to fractions is not simply an exercise—or it can be complementary, providing motivation and concrete examples that improve effort and retention of classroom lessons.

In most cases, educators cannot lead youth apprenticeship. That role is for employers. Apprentices are employees. Unless an employer wishes to hire and train them, there is no apprenticeship. The exception is when schools act as employers. Dataseam, a nonprofit working to help declining coal mining communities in Kentucky move into the digital economy, has created a registered apprenticeship for IT support specialists in high schools. Schools hire selected students and their tech support specialists train them on the job as they install software, troubleshoot, and do other tasks for teachers, staff, and fellow students.

More typically, educators act as partners to employers, responsible for apprentices’ classroom-based learning. That responsibility extends to assuring that both the content and the quality of instruction meet employers’ standards. Apprentices are tested on their attainment of those standards to qualify for the certificates that identify them as skilled workers. This coordination entails a high level of engagement between employers and educators and an ability to upgrade and update instruction as needed. Scheduling poses another challenge. Youth apprentices typically spend 10–⁠20 hours per week at work. Some of this time may be before or after school. Weekends and vacations can also be used. But class times may need adjustment as well.

Young people and their parents need detailed information about a range of careers and apprenticeships. Choosing an apprenticeship is not a lifetime commitment, but it is serious, as is hiring an apprentice to an employer. This is a compelling reason to embed apprenticeship within a broader career pathways strategy that gives students information, experience, and advice. Field trips, job shadowing, and short-term internships (known to German-speakers as “sniffing apprenticeships”) are valuable exploratory forms of work-based learning that should precede the specific job training of apprenticeship.

Educators who participate in youth apprenticeship also assume some additional administrative and oversight responsibilities. They must document their student apprentices’ RTI. Three-way communication with employers and parents is essential. As with any joint venture, some time in meetings is inevitable. Someone in the school, perhaps a CTE teacher or program coordinator, should maintain that communication and meet with apprentices regularly, individually or in a group, to help them make sense of their experience and solve problems. Their visits to workplaces can be invaluable.

The most important benefit from these investments is enhanced student success, especially among those who are hardest to reach. Higher achievement, more postsecondary enrollments, and better labor market outcomes are always welcome. In more materialistic terms, building a coalition of employer partners who see the school as a reliable source of skilled labor and know something about educators’ challenges is sure to pay off in stronger community support for education.

About the Author: Stephen F. Hamilton is author of Career Pathways for All Youth: Lessons from the School-to-Work Movement (Harvard Education Press, 2020). Hamilton is professor emeritus of Human Development at Cornell University, where he was also associate director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and associate provost for outreach. He is a consultant to the Urban Institute Youth Apprenticeship Project and a past dean of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.