The British Experience with Youth Apprenticeships

By Cappelli, Peter | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The British Experience with Youth Apprenticeships


Cappelli, Peter, Phi Delta Kappan


Like the U.S., Great Britain has experienced problems with the school-to-work transition. Moreover, Britain's labor markets look increasingly like those in the U.S. Thus the British program of youth apprenticeships, developed to address these issues, has important lessons to teach developers of similar efforts in the U.S., Mr. Cappelli says.

The U.S. has a difficult time moving non-college-bound students from school into jobs that offer them good prospects for the future. At least part of the reason is the belief that the work-related skills of the school leavers are inadequate. German-style youth apprenticeships that integrate classroom instruction with work-based learning have increasingly been advocated in the U.S. as a way to raise job skills, help teach academic material to the non-college-bound, and improve the transition from school to work.

A series of youth apprenticeship initiatives has been introduced at the state level, but most programs have fewer than 100 students participating and have suffered significantly from a lack of employer participation. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 provides resources to develop and expand youth apprenticeship programs at the state level. The design of these programs will be left largely to state planners.

How should these programs be structured? It is difficult to learn much about what would work in the U.S. by looking at the German apprenticeship programs, despite all the attention given to them. The German system has been in existence more than 700 years and is supported by employer norms and labor market characteristics that will not translate to the U.S., such as legislation and private agreements among employers that prohibit hiring away one another's employees.

We can learn a great deal, however, from the recent British experience. Britain has also faced problems with the school-to-work transition - young people who do not go to college have difficulty finding jobs, and employers complain about low skills among school leavers. Moreover, Britain's labor markets look increasingly like those in the U.S., especially with regard to the growing practice among employers of "poaching" skilled workers away from one another. More to the point, Britain spent much of the past decade developing a program of youth apprenticeships on the German model to help address these issues. Perhaps the most important lessons that the U.S. can learn from the British experience concern the role of employers and the need for incentives to prevent employers' interests from conflicting with the goal of improving skills.

The British program was known as the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and was targeted at school leavers between the ages of 16 and 18 who were not going on to higher education. This integrated program of formal classroom education and work-based learning was designed to develop vocational skills. Participating employers received a subsidy from the government to cover expenses, including the costs of work-based training, and were exempted from various labor law protections (except safety legislation) in order to reduce administrative burdens. In return, they agreed to work toward achieving nationally recognized skill credentials and to meet certain standards in their education and training programs.

The programs were developed at the community level and could be run by a variety of organizations - employers, further education colleges (similar to community colleges), and for-profit "Private Training Organizations" (similar to proprietary schools) that typically subcontracted with several employers to arrange work experience. While the organizations providing work experience might pay the trainees a wage when labor markets were tight and trainees were hard to find, they were not required to do so.

The British Experience

The greatest achievement of YTS is that large numbers of employers were persuaded to provide work-experience positions on short notice, and YTS was able to become a massive program very quickly. …

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