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How to make apprenticeships work

Bloomberg View

The former host of “The Apprentice” may have finally found a government program suitable to his talents. As part of “workforce development week,” President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump are touting the administration’s commitment to increasing the number of Americans doing apprenticeships.

A well-designed apprenticeship system — one that combines classroom instruction with paid, on-the-job training in a specific trade — has the potential to help U.S. companies grow, reduce their need for foreign talent, liberate young people from the burdens of college debt, and provide low-income Americans with a pathway to the middle class. But there are cultural, political and practical obstacles to creating such a system.

Advocates often point to Germany, home to the world’s most well-developed apprenticeship system, as a model. The German experience does show how something similar in the U.S. might work — and might not.

German students are required to choose a career track while in high school. More than half opt for a two- to three-year paid apprenticeship with a business, alongside part-time classes at a technical school. By the age of 20, when the typical American college student is still a junior, some 60 percent of Germans have already obtained a professional job credential. The linchpins of the German apprenticeship system are employers themselves, which cover two-thirds of the total training costs — roughly $6.3 billion a year — for the country’s 1.5 million college-age apprentices.

Replicating the German apprenticeship model in the U.S. would require nothing short of a revolution. For one thing, it would be expensive: The U.S. federal government spends $90 million a year on dedicated apprenticeship programs; the German system costs $27 billion. Americans are loath to abandon the dream of seeing their kids graduate from college. And tracking students at an early age runs the risk of pushing minorities and the poor into low-paying professions.

A more immediate challenge is to persuade U.S. employers to sign on. Few companies have the time or resources to educate, train, pay and certify apprentices. Many businesses leaders remain skeptical of the preparation that prospective apprentices receive from public high schools and community colleges. …

It can be done. YouthForce NOLA, a partnership of political, business and education leaders in New Orleans, places 1,200 high-school seniors from local public high schools in paid internships in fields such as software development and advanced manufacturing. Businesses work with school administrators to ensure students receive practical, skills-based classroom instruction. The goal is to help students obtain professional credentials for high-wage jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees.

Another successful model is the state-run Apprenticeship Carolina program in South Carolina, which serves as an intermediary between businesses, workers and educational institutions. It matches employers with the state’s technical colleges, who tailor classes to meet the companies’ needs, and handles most of the paperwork. Employers are responsible for paying apprentices’ wages and mentoring them on the job. Since 2007, more than 25,000 South Carolina workers have completed apprenticeships; the number of companies participating in the program has increased from 90 to 880.

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