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Should the U.S. Become a Nation of Apprentices?

By Kelly Field December 22, 2015 (from The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Eslie Murraine tried college. But he couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with his life, so he dropped out after a couple years and went to work for United Parcel Service. It took seven years — and an electrical fire at his home — for Mr. Murraine to find his true calling.

“I was fascinated” by the fire, he recalled, and “I started looking into what caused it.”

Now, at age 33, he is in his third year as an apprentice with the Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association. During the day, he wires utility tunnels and buildings around Washington, D.C.; two nights a week he takes courses taught by instructors from Anne Arundel Community College at an office park in Laurel, Md.

When Mr. Murraine completes the program next year, he’ll have a license that is recognized across the country, along with as many as 43 credits toward an associate degree. He won’t have to find a job since he has one already, and he won’t have any student debt.

In an interview during class last month, Mr. Murraine said he wished it hadn’t taken him almost a decade to figure things out. “I didn’t know what an apprenticeship was,” he said. “If we introduced kids to these kinds of things early, I think it would really benefit society.”

Students assemble motor controllers and fuse disconnects in a third-year electrical-apprenticeship class.

 The Obama administration could not agree more. It sees apprenticeships — which combine on-the-job training with classroom learning — as a way to tackle two of the nation’s persistent economic challenges: high youth unemployment and a growing shortage of “middle skills” workers.

For nearly two years the administration has led a drive to “double and diversify” apprenticeships, bringing the “earn while you learn” model to more industries and to more women and minorities. In speeches around the country, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez tells audiences that apprentices make $300,000 more than their peers over their careers. He often calls apprenticeship “the other college — without the debt.”

There are some signs the administration’s efforts are paying off. Over the past year and a half, the nation has added 55,000 apprenticeship slots, the largest increase in almost a decade. There are now close to half a million registered apprentices in the United States, including carpenters, cooks, and child-care development specialists.

Despite this growth, America lags well behind its European competitors when it comes to creating apprentices. To catch up with Great Britain on a per-capita basis, we’d need six times the apprentices; to match Germany we’d need 16 times as many.

So why hasn’t apprenticeship taken root in the United States? There are a couple of clear reasons. First, classroom instruction doesn’t come cheap. Unlike the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland, which invest taxpayer dollars in apprenticeship programs, the United States expects employers (and to a lesser degree, students) to foot the bill. A recent survey by the American Apprenticeship Round Table, an industry organization, found that its members spend an average of $80,000 per student on the academic portion of their programs.

‘It’s hard work. If you’re not a hard worker, it’s not the right job for you.’

“The secretary of labor goes around saying that apprenticeship is college without that debt,” said Scott Christman, a research fellow with the Round Table. But “somebody is paying for it, and that’s us. It comes off our bottom line.”

Second, apprenticeships have an image problem. While many now offer college credit — and a growing number lead directly to two-year degrees — many Americans still view apprenticeships as an alternative to college, a lesser track for weaker students.

The recent recession and the collapse of traditional manufacturing have only deepened Americans’ mistrust of vocational degrees. Though apprentices often outearn recent college graduates (and carry little or none of their student debt), many families see a four-year degree as the only guarantee of financial security.

“A lot of parents think it’s great for someone else’s kids, but not theirs,” said Reid Setzer, policy and legislative affairs analyst at Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for young adults.

Convincing Corporations

The apprenticeship model has its roots in the Middle Ages, when young men — and occasionally women — worked alongside master craftsmen to learn trades.

Today in the United States there are 19,000 apprenticeship programs in 1,000 fields registered either with the federal government or with states. Most are run by employers, industry associations, and unions.

The registered programs range in length from one to six years, but most are four years long, with 2,000 hours of on-the-job work and training and 144 hours of classroom-based instruction a year. Classes are typically taught by faculty of a community college or technical school, and employers often cover part or all of the tuition either upfront or through reimbursement.

These days the typical registered apprentice is not a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, but an electrician, carpenter, or plumber. It’s a more diverse group than it used to be: Twenty percent of apprentices are Hispanic and 10 percent are black, according to the Department of Labor. The average age of apprentices is now 27.

One thing hasn’t changed that much since medieval times: They’re still mostly male. Less than 6 percent of apprentices in 2015 were female, according to the department.

Those demographic shifts are reflected in the electrical apprenticeship that Mr. Murraine is part of. Its 450 students range in age from their late teens to their mid-40s. Fifty percent are minorities. Most are men.

The apprentices work for more than 175 employers, on projects like the region’s expanding subway system and a new cybersecurity center at Fort Meade, Md. When they arrive for class, a few hours after the tour, many are still wearing the blue jeans and neon shirts with company names that they wore to work. One man still has on his reflective vest.

Some, like Mr. Murraine, tried college but decided it wasn’t for them. A few have bachelor’s degrees. Ricky Persell, a 21-year-old who wears a hard hat covered in skeletons and scantily clad women, got a bachelor’s in business but couldn’t imagine sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. So right after graduation he started an apprenticeship.

“It’s hands-on, there’s lots to learn, and you get to work with rejects like these guys,” he said, ribbing his friends.

Employers who hire apprentices say they benefit from a steady stream of well-trained workers, reduced recruitment costs and improved retention. But there hasn’t been any research on the programs’ benefits for employers.

That fact helps explain why apprenticeships haven’t flourished here. Simply put, employers haven’t been convinced they’re worth the money.

This fall researchers at the Department of Commerce and Case Western University began a study of eight companies that will attempt to quantify, for the first time, the “return on investment” of apprenticeships for employers. The findings, said Sarah Ayres Steinberg, vice president of global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, one of the study’s sponsors, could help “make the case to business that this is something that is going to boost your bottom line.”

Meanwhile, some states have started offering companies a tax credit for each student they enroll; in Congress and on the campaign trail, politicians are pushing for a federal tax credit.

In a recent Republican debate, the candidate Marco Rubio argued that “We need more welders and less philosophers,” and claimed that welders make more than philosophers. (It turned out that wasn’t true, at least not for midcareer professionals).

A Problem of Perception

A few of Mr. Murraine’s fellow apprentices joined straight out of high school. Nelson Rivas, 20, segued into the program after a two-year pre-apprenticeship. Asked what drew him to electrical work, he gave two answers: the money and the risk. Journeyman electricians — those who have completed an apprenticeship — make $40,000 to $85,000 a year, according to the Independent Electrical Contractors Chesapeake chapter.

Mr. Murraine, who is 13 years older, isn’t a fan of risk. What he enjoys, he said, are the challenge and the variety. He just finished a job where he was working outside for two years, running wire through utility tunnels. Now he’s back indoors, helping remodel an office building. He’s on the job from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., up to 56 hours a week, he said.

“It’s hard work,” he said. “If you’re not a hard worker, it’s not the right job for you.”

Compared with college, apprenticeships have several advantages. For older workers like Mr. Murraine, apprenticeships are a way to switch careers without leaving the labor market, forgoing income, or taking on debt. For younger apprentices like Mr. Rivas, they’re a way to make money while gaining both technical and interpersonal skills. The average graduate of an apprentice program earns $50,000 — solidly in the middle class.

Society, meanwhile, benefits from the apprentices’ increased productivity and reduced use of government programs. Studies show the social benefits of apprenticeships significantly outweigh the social costs, largely because most costs are borne by program sponsors, not taxpayers.

But finding workers who are willing to do the kind of hard labor Mr. Murraine relishes can be a challenge, said Grant Shmelzer, executive director of the Independent Electrical Contractors Chesapeake chapter.

In an interview, Mr. Shmelzer said six of the trade association employers that offer apprenticeships can’t find workers to fill the jobs.

Part of the problem is the stigma that is still attached to blue-collar work. While the work is “much more technological now,” some Americans still cling to the outdated image of “a construction worker bending over, butt hanging out of his pants,” he said.

Last month Mr. Shmelzer took state and federal officials on a tour of the classrooms at the office park in Laurel, Md., showing them the portable boards fitted with motor control centers, the wooden frame “houses” wired with residential and industrial equipment, and the solar panels, wind turbine, and electrical-car charger outside — high-tech equipment that counters that old narrative.

Getting the message out to parents and guidance counselors that electrical work is skilled, and pays well — better than some college degrees — hasn’t been easy, says Michael Yeakey, director of occupational skills at Anne Arundel Community College. “Parents are still pushing this paradigm of a four-year college,” he said.

Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute and an expert on apprenticeships, blames the “college for all” movement for that mind-set. Mr. Lerman argued that the nation has invested too much in two-year degrees, while neglecting more cost-effective credentials. He said policy makers are ignoring evidence that apprentices complete at higher rates than traditional community-college students — and often outearn them too.

In Wisconsin, employers recently made the case by sponsoring a “heavy metal bus tour” for eighth- and ninth-graders, taking them to modern manufacturing plants to “show them it’s not this dirty, dingy factory that their grandfather might have worked in,” said John Lukas, vice president of LDI Industries Inc., at a recent event on Capitol Hill.

As Mr. Perez, the labor secretary, sees it, the nation is in need of a “culture change” around apprenticeships. “We need to change people’s assumptions and attitudes about apprenticeships to afford this model the stature it has in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.K., and the stature it doesn’t have here,” he said, at a recent event. “And shame on us for that fact.”

‘Almost a Footnote’

The effort to increase apprenticeship in the United States comes amid reports of a looming deficit of middle-skilled workers. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the United States will be short five million workers with a postsecondary education (including technical degrees and certificates) by 2020.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds remained close to 10 percent in November.

Given that backdrop, some have questioned why the federal government invests billions in grants to colleges and their students but spent just $30-million last year registering, marketing, and regulating apprenticeships. While federal student aid, veterans’ benefits, and job-training funds can offset some of the costs to students and employers, some of that money is in the hands of states. No one is tracking how much federal aid goes to apprenticeships.

“We put huge amounts of money into college, and trivial amounts — almost a footnote — into apprenticeships,” said Mr. Lerman.

President Obama has asked Congress for $2 billion in grants — the same amount he received for community colleges — to double the number of apprenticeships, but Congress has yet to provide it. Last fall the White House awarded $175 million in grants to create 34,000 new apprenticeship slots in high-need fields such as health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

Apprenticeship advocates point to nations like Switzerland, which has the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe, as models for the United States. There, 30 percent of companies hire apprentices, and 70 percent of 16- to-19-year-olds participate in vocational training. In Germany, that rate is above 60 percent.

But apprenticeships in those countries are embedded in the secondary-school systems, and apprenticeship systems are centralized, with national standards for training, testing, and certification in hundreds of occupations. America’s apprenticeship system is much less coherent. While “registered apprenticeships” must meet certain federal standards and award a nationally-recognized credential, employers have considerable flexibility in designing the programs. Apprenticeships may be time-based, competency-based, or hybrids.

Hardly anyone is talking of replicating the European system in the United States, where many Americans are suspicious of approaches that “track” students into an academic or vocational path in high school. Rather, the goal should be to learn from the European model, to copy what works, and “create a uniquely American apprenticeship system,” said Eric Seleznow, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department, at the recent event on Capitol Hill.

That system might include more programs that combine work and learning while students are still in high school. But it could also encompass “upside-down degrees,” which put two years of technical training before two years of general education, and “applied bachelor’s degrees,” which build on two-year technical degrees, said Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation.

“We’re limiting our imagination by saying the bachelor’s degree has to take a particular form,” she said.

One apprenticeship program already offers a bachelor’s degree — and a potential model for other American apprenticeships. At the longstanding Apprentice School in Newport News, Va., students can now do a four-year stint at a shipyard while earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical or electrical engineering from Old Dominion University.

Officials at the Apprentice School said that the company that owns Newport News Shipbuilding, Huntington Ingalls Industries, added the bachelor’s option two years ago as a recruitment tool. The company was having a hard time finding enough American engineers to fill its jobs, and as a defense contractor, it couldn’t hire foreign engineers. So the company decided to train its own employees, said Everett H. Jordan Jr., head of the Apprentice School.

“Like the Naval Academy,” he said, “we grow our own.”

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy

Colleges’ Climate for Low-Income Students Shapes Academic Confidence

By Beckie Supiano December 21, 2015

 Some colleges put significant resources into recruiting and financially supporting low-income students. But how colleges describe those programs also matters, according to a new paper. If messages from a college suggest that it is “warm” toward students like them, the authors found, low-income students’ academic confidence and identification as high achievers are stronger than if the messages suggest that it is “chilly” — that the needs of students like them are ignored or overlooked. We talked with the paper’s lead author, Alexander S. Browman, about the research and what colleges can learn from it. The conversation with Mr. Browman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern University, has been edited and condensed.

Q. What got you interested in exploring whether low-income students’ academic confidence or expectations could be influenced by the ways such students saw their colleges as friendly or unfriendly toward them?

A. We’ve been noticing in the literature and in the press a pretty big uptick in the acknowledgment of the type of difficulties that students from these low socioeconomic status, or low SES, backgrounds have when they try to reach and finance university education. A lot of universities have been making these very concerted efforts to try to increase the amount of financial aid they’ve got, the amount of work-study opportunity they have. And they’ve been publicizing this to try to increase the admission of students like that. But still, in the literature, students who are admitted continue to express this feeling that their universities are less focused on serving students who are from backgrounds like theirs.

But there wasn’t really any literature that had examined whether the experiences these students were having had any important psychological consequences. So our goal was really to see whether presenting the university as being explicitly committed to, versus passively more ignoring of, socioeconomic diversity could influence these low-SES students’ academic motivation, identification as being strong students, and sense of connectedness to academic success.

Q. Could you give an overview of your experiments?

A. We had three experiments. All of them used the same materials. We brought in students from basically across the income spectrum, and we randomly assigned them to either read some statements more explicitly focused on supporting students from low-SES backgrounds — so it talked about financial aid, it talked about the availability of work-study — whereas another group of students saw statements that downplayed the school’s commitment to those types of students and really focused more on the fact that there were less students at the school who required financial aid.

Then depending on which study, we measured either their sense of academic confidence, how strongly they felt that they could do well at the school they were at; their sense of their academic expectations, what grades they thought that they were going to get; or we used a reaction-time measure that’s been used a lot in the psychological literature to examine how strongly they tied their own personal identity to high academic achievement.

Q. Could you give some concrete examples of the kind of statements that you used to convey either warmth or chilliness?

A. When we tried to convey a sense of chilliness, we used statements like “the cost of attendance for this academic year was X amount,” which is around $60,000, “which over half of the families at this school manage without any financial aid.” And when we were trying to present it as a more warm environment, we had statements like “dedicated to assisting students in earning money to meet their educational costs, the school is strongly involved with the federal work-study program and will pay over $2.8 million to its work-study students this year.”

Q. And what did you find?

A. For the low-SES students, when we exposed them to information that was suggestive of their university’s commitment to supporting socioeconomic diversity versus when they were exposed to more explicit statements that kind of downplayed the university’s commitment to financial aid, we found that they had greater confidence in pursuing academic tasks, they had higher expectations for academic success, and they had a stronger sense of themselves as being higher achievers.

Q. Given what you found from this research, what advice do you have for colleges that want to be seen as welcoming by low-income students?

A. I have to preface this answer by saying we can really only speak to institutions that already have the resources available to provide for these students because that’s the type of institution that we studied in this work.

While providing these financial resources is unquestionably important for addressing financial disadvantages, and it’s great that there are schools that take the issue of increasing socioeconomic diversity so seriously, what our findings illuminate is the importance of how policies that are related to socioeconomic diversity are presented to the students. When schools make a big change in their financial-aid policies, it’s a big thing that they obviously want to make public. But they have to be careful of the wording that they use.

Q. So even if a college works really hard to convey the programs it has to support low-SES students in really thoughtful terms, students are still getting messages from lots of other places beyond the college’s control. This is further afield from what you studied, but do you think there are things that the college can do, realizing it’s part of this larger culture of how students think about college and who it’s for?

A. It’s beyond the scope of this paper, and we’d have to do further research before I’d really feel comfortable giving a solid, empirically based answer because we really just focused on this one element of the messages that are coming directly from the college.

The next step is really to take a broader approach and look at a larger group of schools of different types. We want to look at schools that are more elite. State schools. Right now I don’t think I can make a solid hypothesis, even, because it’s likely to vary so much from institution to institution what their cultural norms are, what type of student body they have.

EIL Program Sends Keys Students Abroad

Click here to read the article from Keys Weekly Newspaper.

Underemployment Among College Graduates Drops, Report Says

Report: “Sharp Declines in Underemployment for College Graduates”

Organization: Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce

Summary: The percentage of college graduates who are underemployed has fallen from its recession-era peak of 10.2 percent to 6.2 percent today, a new study has found. By comparison, the rate for high-school graduates is 13 percent.

A report on the study breaks down underemployment by race, noting that disparities between different races’ underemployment rates decline with more education. For instance, African-Americans’ underemployment rate eclipses the white underemployment rate by nearly nine percentage points. But that disparity is cut in half among college graduates.

Underemployment refers to people who are seeking a job while not having one, or who have a part-time job but seek a full-time job.

Bottom Line: The report underscores the bedrock notion that an undergraduate degree is crucial to finding employment, and that it is an important tool in reducing economic inequality among races