What Could Possibly Go Wrong With A Federal Apprenticeship Program?

Carole Hornsby Haynes Education Analyst
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Promising that apprenticeships are going to be a “major factor in our country,” President Trump is leading the charge to reform the failed federally funded job-training and workforce development programs.

The recently passed H.R. 2353 reduces the role of the federal government in workforce programs.  Education and the Workforce Committee ChairmanVirginia Foxx, in her FoxNews commentary, wrote that educational institutions, private companies, and community leaders must  work together to create apprenticeship programs without the federal government dictating implementation.

Despite this House effort to return workforce development to local control, lawmakers are plowing ahead with new legislation for more government control.

H.R. 2933 promotes the expansion of registered apprenticeships for integration with postsecondary education and the government as a collaborator — and more federal strings and inefficiency.

Companion bills H.R. 3174 and S.1518 empower the Labor Department to set up contracts with industry leaders to promote apprenticeships in the technology sector.  Does Big Tech really need the federal government to develop an apprenticeship program?

Apprenticeships involve a team effort of employer and education provider for hands-on training of prospective workers. Although the majority of Americans don’t get jobs through apprenticeships, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that nine in 10 of those who serve as apprentices get jobs following their training with average beginning salaries of $60,000 a year.

There are six million job openings in the United States, the highest number since 1980, with the number increasing to 11 million by 2022. Yet millions of American workers do not have the necessary skills to fill these American jobs.  According to a 2014 Georgetown University study, by 2020 some form of education or training beyond high school will be required for 65 percent of all jobs and it will not necessarily be a college degree.

For this reason, apprenticeship programs are highly popular among policymakers at the moment.

The downside to the government workforce program is that high school students are being trained for specific jobs with skill certificates rather than educating them broadly.

The purpose of American public education is no longer academic learning but rather workforce training as the U.S. moves toward a centrally planned economy.  Under the School-to-Work Act passed in the 1990s, decision-making about careers is being forced on children as early as kindergarten.  By the end of the 8th grade, students must select career options from a cluster of 16 sectors of the economy carved out by the federal government.  Encouraged to focus on careers that are currently in high demand, by the end of the 10th grade students must make a final decision about their careers.

Some people are late bloomers. What if a 23-year-old decides the career choice made in his teens is now the wrong choice for his adult life? Since he has no government-issued skill certificate in the new career choice, is this young adult just out of luck? What if this 23-year-old lacks the basic academic skills in reading, math, and English because the emphasis on workforce training crowded out strong foundational academics?

This concern is supported in the new international study by Stanford’s Hanushek et al about the impact of a general education vs. a vocational education on long term labor market outcomes.

The study concludes that even though students benefit from Career and Technology Education early in their careers, technological changes can make them less adaptable to employment changes later in life.  Vocational degrees can become obsolescent as industries weaken, jobs are replaced, and and job skills become outdated.

The study notes that lifetime earnings in countries with slower growing economies are favored by a vocational education while more rapidly growing national economies favor a general high school curriculum or college for career-long benefits.

In a nutshell, an apprenticeship can be an excellent way for a young person to land a job short term, but a broader education can be critical for a lifetime of successful work.

If federal control over workforce decisions increases, it is inevitable that students will lose another right – a personal choice in their career decisions.  The danger is that it can lead to the German-style government tracking of students for specific jobs to satisfy State determined workforce needs with workers unable to make changes.  Since D.C. politicians are now quietly advancing a national student database to track students for workforce needs, this is not such a far-fetched idea.

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