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06/23/2017 03:01 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2017

Weekend Roundup: Spotlight On The Apprentice

Vocational apprenticeship programs are a key way to adjust to the constant flux of globalization and rapid technological change.
Apprenticeships aren't for everyone, but they could provide some workers with a route to better careers.
Getty/WorldPost Illustration
Apprenticeships aren't for everyone, but they could provide some workers with a route to better careers.

It is where Donald Trump’s reality-TV persona from “The Apprentice” meets his presidency that he can make the most significant difference for the “left behind” constituencies that voted for him. Last week, President Trump issued an executive order calling for the doubling of funding for apprenticeship grants in the United States ― a key area, like infrastructure, where a consensus can be built across America’s divided politics.

In an interview with The WorldPost this week, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers makes Trump’s case: “We don’t do anything for people who don’t go to college. They are left to either sink or swim, and mostly they sink. I’m thinking here of the kind of vocational apprentice arrangements that Germany has implemented successfully.” Summers also argues for international economic policies that benefit the average person more than the global corporations, such as closing tax loopholes and shutting down tax havens as a priority over securing intellectual property protection for pharmaceutical companies. “Right now,” he says, “when we discuss the global economy, we mainly talk about things that improve ‘competitiveness’ and are painful to the regular worker.”

Alongside greater investment in public higher education, on-the-job vocational training is essential to creating workforce opportunities not only in a global economy, but, more importantly, when faced with the perpetual disruptions of digital capitalism. As economist Laura Tyson points out, “about 80 percent of the loss in U.S. manufacturing jobs over the last three decades was a result of labor-saving and productivity-enhancing technological change, with trade coming a distant second.” Constantly adjusting to an ever-shifting recomposition of the knowledge-driven innovation economy is only possible if skills remain aligned to the needs of employers.

Brookings Institution policy analyst Mark Muro thinks the president managed to get the big things right with his executive order. “In noting that a four-year college degree isn’t for everyone,” Muro writes, “he spoke reasonably about the potential of paid, hands-on workplace experiences that train workers and link them to employers. In addition, Trump rightly underscored the need for industry — rather than the government — to play the largest role in structuring those experiences.” Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, a Washington-based nonprofit working to promote economic mobility, concurs that industry, not government, knows best what skills they need. “After more than two years of unlikely promises — to restore coal mining, end offshoring and recreate the manufacturing jobs of a bygone era,” writes Jacoby, “the president is finally focusing on a solution that could make a difference for the working-class voters who elected him: skills.” 

Writing from Munich on her way to an international gathering on apprenticeships, Jobs for the Future’s Nancy Hoffman emphasizes that the most successful programs “combine structured learning in a workplace with credit-bearing community college course-taking so that a student arrives at completion of the apprenticeship not just with job-related skills, but with a useable transferable credential as well.” Joshua Pearce, who heads Michigan Tech’s Open Sustainability Technology Lab, completes the picture. “A relatively minor investment in retraining,” he says, “would allow the majority of coal workers to switch to solar-related positions.”

McKinsey & Company’s Mona Mourshed offers a cautious note: only around 30 percent of youth employment programs have proven effective, according to World Bank estimates. “The hallmarks of an effective program,” she writes, “are employer engagement, a practice-based curriculum, student support services and a commitment to measuring results post-program.”

Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek is even more skeptical that the U.S. can replicate the successful German model of apprenticeship, because failing K-12 schools in America are not providing young people entering the workforce with the requisite cognitive skills to effectively prepare them for an uncertain future.

Bolstering vocational apprenticeship programs in the U.S. is imperative to enabling non-college-educated Americans to find work in a continually churning economy. But, clearly, much work will have to be done to realize that imperative itself.

Other highlights in The WorldPost this week:

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