I was interested to learn that the Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama has been investigating whether German-style "apprenticeships" might be a viable alternative to college education for the young people of his city.
Mayors and governors of both parties tout German-style apprenticeships as an alternative pathway to employment, in the face of ballooning college tuition and the need for career options for noncollege graduates.
. . .
Fascination with Germany’s apprenticeship model comes at a time when Germany itself is showing signs of fatigue with its own system and adopting a more-American college-based approach.
In 2016, about 52% of German high-school graduates became apprentices, down from roughly two-thirds 20 years ago. At the same time, 57% of high school graduates started college, up from about one-third two decades earlier.
On a tour of the software company’s training facility, Mr. Woodfin saw these contradictions up close.
A dozen men in their late teens flitted between classrooms and an industrial-looking floor with large computers and 3-D printers. The apprentices, studying to become programmers or engineers, split their time learning a nationally-standardized curriculum and working alongside mentors to learn the ways of the company.
The company had recently opened a U.S. office in Birmingham, and the mayor had come in part to ask executives to export their apprenticeship curriculum to his city. But when he inquired at the boardroom table, abat’s managing director, Jörg Pieper, demurred.
The U.S. government doesn’t regulate apprenticeships the same way, he said, and abat would need to invest more to build a quality curriculum. Because U.S. schools aren’t designed for apprenticeships, the company would have to look for applicants. And the credentials it awards might not be recognized by other companies, he added.
But there was a more basic problem, Mr. Pieper said—that of perception. “In the United States, from my experience, you are out of high school, and you are just labor, or you go to university. There is nothing in between,” he told Mr. Woodfin. “The apprenticeship—it’s not considered a good education.”
Yet for Alabama, it could provide one answer to what students do when they finish high school, Mr. Woodfin said.
About 85% of the city’s students graduate high school, but just 55% head to college. Many of the rest, Mr. Woodfin said, find themselves stuck in “dead end” jobs, or not working at all. As a high-school student, Mr. Woodfin said, he rang up groceries for class credit at a supermarket near his home, leaving school long before the closing bell. These days, he said, schools don’t promote work as an option, and many students don’t see it as an honorable way to learn.
“It’s on us to articulate that those options exist and should be valued,” he said.
There's more at the link.
I can attest from personal experience that on-the-job "apprenticeships" of this kind really do work. When I finished my initial period of military service, that's how I became a computer programmer. I tested well for the necessary aptitude, and as a result was accepted into an on-the-job training program at a major oil company's South African operation. Over the course of six months I did a series of audio-visual courses (remember those?), each preceded and followed by hands-on training with a senior programmer, who corrected my errors, showed me the company's way of doing things (which didn't always coincide with what the courses taught), and generally kept me pointed in the right direction. For the next two years, as I gained experience, I worked with a team of more senior programmers, all of whom continued to educate me and sharpen my skills. I turned into a pretty good programmer, if I do say so myself.
The big problem is that standards vary between companies. One corporation's course in (say) drafting, or computer programming, or maintenance, may not be as good as another organization's equivalent, or cover the same material. In the absence of any national or industry-wide standard of education and/or certification, who's to say? Some industries have tried to establish their own standards. (For example, in South Africa, the Computer Users Council developed its own COBOL programming course, tested in a standardized examination, which I had to pass to be considered "qualified"). Other industry bodies have their own proprietary "certifications" (e.g. the Society for Human Resource Management has a certification program for its members). That, at least, gives a level of comparative assessment that may be useful for hiring purposes in specific industries.
(Of course, such programs aren't the same as a traditional "apprenticeship" in one of the skilled trades such as plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and soon. Those are far more rigorous, and usually take at least three to four years to complete, including post-high-school technical tertiary education. Mike Rowe's foundation is doing sterling work promoting options in this field, and I'm profoundly grateful to him for putting so much work into it.)
Germany had (and to some extent still has) a well-developed system of technical education, all the way up to a so-called "engineer's degree", offering a viable alternative to traditional academic education. The now-defunct title of "Diplom-Ingenieur" was a significant achievement, and the holder got real respect for the hard work and technical knowledge necessary to attain it. South Africa had a similar system of so-called "technical colleges" (now, sadly, rolled into the university system and no longer a separate education track). Graduates from such colleges were often even more sought after by industry than "academic" Masters or Doctors graduates in engineering, because they were considered more practical and production-oriented, instead of the academic orientation of the "classier" degrees.
I'm glad to see Birmingham and other cities looking into alternatives to college education. However, I suspect the lack of national standards and norms for comparative assessment will make the experiment difficult, if not derail it altogether. Still, who knows? With enough effort and motivation, it may become more feasible in future than it is today. Given the unsatisfactory state of US higher education at present, that's probably a desirable outcome.