Will the real apprentice please stand up?
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Before Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE pulled off the most stunning electoral upset in American history, he spent time playing the role of a seasoned mentor to a new crop of apprentices each week.

But we didn’t hear much about “The Apprentice” from the Trump campaign, despite the show’s popularity. That was a missed opportunity. There are many reasons that program was popular – and one is surely that, in today’s fast-paced, competitive market, people like the idea of learning on the job from an experienced master. Apprenticeship really is a time-tested model for developing young talent that works well for workers and employers alike.

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As it happens, the United States actually has a formal apprenticeship system that dates back to the 1930s and provides high quality training to close to half a million people every year. Even better, most of them don’t get fired at the end of their program. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 87 percent of apprentices who complete their programs transition successfully into jobs, positions in which they earn average starting wages of more than $50,000.

Compare that to higher education, where only about half of all students who start a bachelor’s degree will complete it in six years, and the average student will graduate with more than $30,000 in debt. Apprentices, by contrast, earn a wage while they learn, and also have the opportunity to develop strong relationships with worksite mentors and colleagues.

One clear lesson Democrats took away from the primary was that young people are worried about the price of higher education and want alternatives that are affordable and high quality. The Trump campaign never took up the flag of free college (or even debt-free college), but if the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress hope to maintain their majorities for more than a few years, they might want to start addressing the needs of America’s youth, which means enacting policies that help young people acquire the skills, credentials, and networks they need to find good jobs and build successful careers.

And apprenticeship might be just what they are looking for. 

But the U.S. apprenticeship system needs a lot of work if it is going to become a viable alternative to traditional higher education for both young people and employers. In its current form, it is small, exclusive, and poorly targeted. There are currently about 450,000 apprentices enrolled in programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor – less than one half of one percent of our labor force. Compare that to an undergraduate population of around 18 million students.

Apprenticeships are also difficult to find. In contrast to other countries where young people can apprentice in diverse fields like banking, data analytics, computer programming, and, yes, even real estate, U.S. apprenticeships are available in only a narrow range of occupations, predominantly in the building trades and manufacturing. Of the 25 occupations with the most apprentices in 2015, all but three belong to the skilled trades, construction, or manufacturing.

But perhaps most troubling of all is that our apprenticeship system is not designed for young people in the first place.  In fact, the average age of an American apprentice is 27 years old – not 18 or 19 as it is in many European countries.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. With the right mix of policies, investments, and public engagement activities, we can expand apprenticeship into new industries and populations.

The first thing we need to do is locate access to apprenticeship opportunities in the same places where young people spend the majority of their time – school. One reason that apprentices tend to be older in the United States than in European countries is because there is no connection between our formal education system and our apprenticeship system, at either the secondary or postsecondary level. That needs to change.

Second, we need more onramps to apprenticeship programs for young people who have given up on school but need to acquire valuable skills and credentials to get into the labor market. We currently have 5.5 million of these “Opportunity Youth” who are neither in school nor work, and we have almost nothing to offer them for connecting to the labor market, beyond going back to school.

Organizations like Year Up have figured out how to help these young adults through models that look a lot like apprenticeship – spending half their time learning on-the-job with experienced mentors in companies like Bank of America and Google, and the other half in classes shoring up their core professional and academic skills. Young people leave Year Up ready to re-engage with work and school. But these programs are few and far between – and we need many more like them.

Third, we need to get businesses on board with apprenticeship. Over the last two years the Obama administration and Republican-controlled Congress have worked together to expand apprenticeship system. In 2015, Congress added $90 million to the Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship USA initiative, with the aim of attracting new industries and employers. The next administration could expand on those efforts, and bring considerable credibility to the conversation with employers.

According to a recent survey, most young Americans don’t even know what an apprentice is other than a name for a popular reality TV show. With the former star of The Apprentice now becoming our 45th president, no administration has ever been better positioned to make American apprenticeship great again.

Mary Alice McCarthy is the Director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America. Jonathan Hasak is a Manager of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Year Up. 


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.