Apprenticeships for the 21st Century

By Packert, Ginger | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Apprenticeships for the 21st Century


Packert, Ginger, Phi Delta Kappan


The 62% of high school graduates who won't continue their education in a university this year are precisely the untapped resources the American economy needs, Ms. Packert avers. Apprenticeships offer a long-term solution to putting the economy back to work.

In Charles Dickens' classic tale Oliver Twist, the eponymous hero is sold as an apprentice to escape the squalor of the orphans' home in which he has spent his short and miserable life. To advertise the labor of the young boy, a sign is hung around his neck, "To Let," and five pounds will be paid to anyone who will take possession of him. Unfortunately, this Dickensian image of apprenticeships persists today. Many in society view apprenticeships as a last resort for young people who have no other alternatives.

As education and business enter the 21st century, the truth about apprenticeships could not be further from the dismal picture painted above. Schools and industries together are only beginning to realize the potential bonanza of using apprenticeships to fill the labor void that is not metaphorically around the corner, but already here in the 1990s. Technology has all but eliminated unskilled labor positions, while the need for semiskilled and highly skilled employees grows. Unfortunately, schools and training programs have fallen short of providing the technically trained workers who are now in demand. As the present labor force ages, trained new employees to take those workers' places are increasingly in short supply. Where will the trained workers come from?

According to the Federal Committee on Apprenticeships, an advisory agency to the U.S. secretary of labor, apprenticeships are not cooperative education, vocational education, tech prep, summer or part-time work experiences, or any other of the many work experiences available. Features that distinguish apprenticeships from these other valuable work experiences are the sponsorship of the training program, the skills acquired through a specifically tailored training program, and the credibility of the content learned. A modern apprenticeship is a partnership entered into by school, business, and employee. Each is distinctive, each has an independent role, yet each is working toward the same result: a trained, skilled, and valuable employee.

EHOVE (Erie, Huron, Ottawa Vocational Education) Career Center is a public vocational school that serves students in grades 11 and 12. Fifteen high schools, representing 13 school districts, send students to the EHOVE Career Center. We became particularly interested in the revitalization of an apprenticeship program after witnessing the success of several EHOVE graduates who had participated in apprenticeships at a local industry. Working with a business consultant, we became convinced of the feasibility of incorporating apprenticeship training directly into the high school curriculum. We found a local aluminum corporation eager to participate; as one supervisor there told us, "The future holds a need for versatility." Diversification seems to be the watchword for the modern application of any apprenticeship program.

Fortunately, we had the perfect candidate for our inaugural high school apprenticeship program. John is a young man with very big dreams. He hopes his training and certification as a master diesel mechanic will eventually give him the opportunity to become an entrepreneur himself. In the meantime, John will continue his apprenticeship work in the shop as well as his coursework in the apprentice training program. John plans to be an integral part of his employer's ever-changing needs.

Much can be learned from apprenticeship programs already in place. Apprenticeship programs have been thriving in Europe for decades. Germany's tiered apprenticeship training has been particularly scrutinized. The merit of the German program seems to be direct cooperation between school, industry, and the government. By design, factories serve as both workplace and classroom. …

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