Apprenticeships won’t work here

When only 37 percent of students enrolled in college graduate in eight years, there’s something terribly wrong (“Looking for an Alternative to College? U.S. Studies German Apprenticeships,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).  The usual explanation is that high schools are not doing their job.  But there is another side of the story that warrants a closer look.

The truth is that not everyone is college material.  They lack either the aptitude or the interest, or both.  Yet we persist in counseling them to apply to a four-year college or university, when they would be far better served taking a vocational course of study in high school, combined with an apprenticeship.  I submit that the main reason is our aversion to differentiation in education at any age. Our competitors abroad have so such problem separating students into tracks based on their ability.

Even though student debt is at an all-time high, students persist in believing that without a four-year college degree they can’t make a decent living.  If they had been better counseled, they would quickly see that is not the case.  For example, welders now command salaries of $100,000.  And they are not burdened with student debt.  I see many of my former students, who never went to college but took a vocational education, doing what they like and leading a gratifying life.  It’s time to get real about the obsession with college for all.

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2 Replies to “Apprenticeships won’t work here”

  1. Completely agree that many students who start college (or even complete college) would be better off financially and even emotionally if they learned a skilled trade instead of going to college.

    Related thought — During the post-WWII decades, blue-collar workers made comfortable livings w/o college degrees. In large part, this was due to the economic clout of labor unions that compelled employers to channel much of the labor productivity increases back to the employees rather than into employer/stockholder pockets. Starting around the 1970s, labor unions lost a lot of their economic clout. As a result, a lot of skilled labor and virtually all unskilled labor is paid relatively low wages. There are several reasons that labor unions have lost their economic clout — conservatives like to blame the global economy, but if the global economy were squeezing wages then the global economy would also be squeezing profits. I blame changes in national labor policy — in both the formal laws and in the informal what-socially-acceptable-employers-can-get-away-with (after Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, it became much more socially acceptable for employers to permanently “replace” — that is, discharge — economic strikers; this had always been legal but had previously been viewed as socially unacceptable by most employers). Obama’s 2008 campaign platform called for legislation prohibiting the permanent replacement of economic strikers, but after he was elected he forgot completely about unions.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: That is correct. So many workers with a trade were catapulted into the middle class when labor unions were strong. It was good for them and good for the country. The New York Times ran a story about hotel workers in Las Vegas without any real skills who have managed to raise a family and buy a home because of the strong union representing them.

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