Rethinking America’s Apprenticeship Programs

Toward Another American Century

It is there for the taking. With the Chinese economy struggling, in part because of a massive real estate crisis, and European and Japanese demographics weak, the U.S. has an opportunity to dominate another century economically. At the heart of America’s potential is a chance to regain significant market share in industrial production. Surveys indicate that a growing fraction of American CEOs are reconsidering the geography of their supply chains, with more concluding that supply should be more closely located to customers, in part to diminish complexity, eliminate the number of potential bottlenecks, and reduce transportation costs.

The pandemic helped to reinforce the importance of bringing more manufacturing to our shores. For instance, as indicated by a report from the National Institutes of Science and Technology, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figure showed that 95% of surgical masks and 70% of tighter-fitting respirators like N95 masks are made overseas. According to the Food and Drug Administration, nearly three-quarters of active ingredient manufacturing facilities for medicines sold in the U.S. are in other nations.

But for America to capture more manufacturing market share, it must support a well-trained, sufficiently sized 21st century industrial workforce. What’s more, to install the infrastructure needed to support tomorrow’s industrial production, the nation needs skilled construction workers to support the electrical grid, build and maintain roads and bridges, construct better educational and healthcare facilities, and improve water supply and wastewater treatment.

Alas, the U.S. has fallen short along this dimension. The nation suffers a dearth of electricians, mechanics, millwrights, machinists, welders, and pipefitters, among others. Curricula focused on college preparedness have failed to expose young people to pathways to prosperity involving skilled trades. Meanwhile, many of America’s most skilled craftspeople are approaching retirement age. Many have already retired. This is no way to build the world’s most dominant 21st century economy.

But America has shown an uncanny ability to adapt over the course of centuries. Moreover, in this instance, it need not pursue something utterly novel. Rather, there are nations in which industrial workers are held in the highest regard. Those nations support educational and training models that America may want to mimic.

The German Model

Apprenticeships have been a vital part of Germany’s history. This is a nation associated with leadership in many industrial disciplines, including four in particular: automotive, mechanical engineering, chemical, and electrical. Among the global players that Germany has produced are Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW, the chemical giant BASF and the electrical behemoth Siemens.

German students who graduate from general education, the German equivalent to America’s secondary education system, have two options. They can go on to higher education and earn a university degree or they can take advantage of the nation’s robust dual vocational education system. This dual system aids to systematically combine the advantages of being educated in a vocational school while training with an enterprise. By selecting the vocational pathway, young Germans enter an apprenticeship program that offers advanced skills for specific professions.

Critically, the average age of those entering these programs is 16. These programs typically span from two to three years, which means that many graduates have yet to turn 20. Apprentices apply directly with the employer with whom they hope to work. This is akin to how college applicants apply to colleges they wish to attend. According to an Urban Institute study, there were nearly 1.1 million apprentices in these programs in 2019 spread across 327 recognized occupations.

Cultural perspectives matter. Germans accord precision manufacturing with considerable prestige. In the U.S. attitudes toward manufacturing jobs are often different, with the greatest prestige often accorded to those who work in service sector disciplines like private equity or corporate law.

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About the Author

Anirban Basu

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, MD. He is one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s most recognizable economists in part because of his consulting work on behalf of such clients as prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers, and law firms.

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