The Role of Apprenticeship Programs

by Thomas E. Persing


The graduates of secondary schools and universities in the United States are competing in the global work market. We must establish new partnerships between universities, schools, and business which will enable U.S. citizens to be more successful, especially in their early formative and competitive ages of 16 to 23. Currently there is a perilous transition from school to career. If we forge new relationships between universities, school, and business which are designed to break the established habit of having sixteen­year­olds become part of the hamburger flippers of the USA and then waiting to mature seven or eight years before getting a real job, or of disregarding the 50 percent who enter college and fail to graduate, we will have found a way to dramatically improve the economic health of the USA.

In this respect, not all First World countries function the same. Germany, to cite only one example, has a different education/work partnership. From the outset, let me hasten to say, I am not proposing that the United States adopt what has been happening in Germany for over a hundred years. Our culture would need to adapt, not simply adopt.

All students in Germany attend elementary schools K­4 or K­6. They then enter into one of three different types of middle or secondary schools. To the Gymnasium go the most academically able students, based on tests and teacher recommendations, to prepare for entrance into the University. Those who are very capable academically and also have practical skills and interests other than medicine, law, government and the like, enter the Realschule, which is composed of grades 7­13. The Realschule specializes in either commercial or technical fields. The least academically talented enter the Hauptschule which is not viewed as not having an advantage when entering the labor market.

Despite these differences in aim, all three secondary schools have a common core of academic subjects. What is more, German universities have a much more narrow curriculum overview. Students receive l3 years of secondary education, which is a broad, liberal, and general education. They are admitted directly into chemistry or sociology departments and also into medical and legal studies.

Using this as an introduction, I would like to focus on one aspect of the German education system as something the United States could adapt and adopt. This is the Apprenticeship Program or Dual System, which is a combination of apprenticeship with part­time vocational schooling. This system requires a joint effort of business, government, unions, and chambers (Handwerkskammer and Industrie­und Handleskammer), which are employers' organizations. The Apprenticeship Program is recognized as the true source of a skilled workforce which sustains Germany's international competitiveness.

Students entering the Realschule or the Hauptschule can become directly involved in preparing for a career by becoming apprentices. The student will attend school for one or two days per week, and will receive on­the­job training three or four days per week. The student will be paid about $3,000 the first year, $5,000 the second year, and about $7,000 the last year. All salaries are paid by the employer. The student becomes more productive each year, but fundamentally it is the skilled training which is the purpose of the apprenticeship. This type of investment by the employer is not rewarded until after graduation, which is the l3th year.

The academic education is geared toward applied subjects which have a direct bearing on the career being pursued by the apprenticeship. The curriculum is a result of cooperation among business, labor unions, government, and chambers. Furthermore, the apprenticeship is under the tutelage of a master who will determine when the apprenticeship may take the test which will signal his opportunity to become a craftsman.

It is important to know that there is always the opportunity for an apprentice to take the examination and secure an arbiter which is necessary for entrance into a University. Also, many of the owners of small businesses, and CEO's in large business are graduates of the apprenticeship system.

In the United States, the university establishment could play an important leadership role by using its influence to persuade business leaders, the government, the educational community, and labor unions to cooperate and create an apprenticeship program in the United States.

The key features of an apprenticeship system as proposed by Stephen Hamilton in his book Apprenticeship for Adulthood are as follows:

Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Secretary of Education Richard Riley have already demonstrated their desire to move forward on this proposition. One could easily imagine how this proposal could be accelerated if a prestigious university such as Yale would openly embrace the concept. The University has nothing to lose but can advance its reputation as a concerned member of the economic web which weaves opportunities for the less academically, socially, and financially advantaged members of the future work force. The University will not have any competition from the apprenticeship crowd that would lessen its enrollment capacity. However, lending its leadership and commitment to the apprenticeship model would greatly influence business and government officials to look more seriously toward the establishment of an apprenticeship system in the United States.

An American business which is geared to monthly progress reports and quarterly earning reports, which innately distrusts young people as workers and has great difficulty with long­term investments, will need the encouragement of tax incentives. The University could help influence the government to help realize this necessity.

More to the point, universities could create new relationships with secondary schools by preparing teachers to teach the application aspects of math and science. Teachers in current service could attend workshops and staff development courses to foster an in­ depth knowledge of what must be necessary to be successful in the world of work.

Of more importance, universities, business and secondary schools could form partnerships in teaching and learning how all academic subjects, including math, science, history, and language study, could be presented and taught to secondary students in ways which would show them immediate practical applications in various career choices. Partnerships of this nature will break the mold of current relationships. New alliances based on trust and respect will be necessary. I know of no entity that has the respect of society other than the University, that could better muster these forces in a cohesive and productive manner. Following Robert Kennedy's lead, we should ask: If not the university, then who? If not now, when?

I fully recognize the virtual impossibility in a short paper of making the reader cognizant of apprenticeship programs, the necessary business and government involvement, and the role of secondary schools in the preparation of youth for their transition into the world of work. However, I list a few references for those who wish to become further involved.

References

The William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship. (November 1988). The Forgotten Half. Washington, D.C.

Hamilton, Stephen F. (1990). Apprenticeship for Adulthood. New York, New York: The Free Press.

McAlams, Richard P. (1993). Lessons from Abroad. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Technomic Publishing Co.

Reich, Robert B. (1991). The Work of Nations. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


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