To create more apprenticeships on a massive scale would also require a shift in worldview for some companies; many companies simply wait for educated and qualified workers to come to them, then teach them a few extra skills that they might need to know at that particular firms. In apprenticeships, businesses take an active role in formalized education processes.
Carnevale also believes that an apprenticeship system depends on strong unions. After all, many programs like the one at IUOE can only run because local companies pay into it—it's a partnership between a union and the private sector. Carnevale also points out that unionization has been on the decline in America for decades. As recently as the late 1970s, nearly one quarter of all workers were union members. As of 2011, less than half that share—barely 12 percent—were in unions.
Still, the union model is not the only model. Some companies that require very specialized skills run their own programs.
"There's nothing prohibiting industries from developing their own talent," says Greg Chambers, director of compliance at Oberg Industries, a Pittsburgh-area precision manufacturer. "You can grow your own."
He says that training ends up being one percent of his company's sales—"it's a big penny; I'm saying gross sales, not profits," he stresses—and takes his workers an average of three to four years to master the requisite skills. However, he says all of the investment is worth it, because he gets exactly the workers he wants, avoiding the "skills mismatch" that many manufacturers have bemoaned in recent years. And it's worth it for his workers too, he believes, as they get a certification that is recognized nationwide.
"The benefits way outweigh the expenses for our type of industry. It's do or die. If we don't train
them, we can't do our job."
The Unrealistic Dream of College for Everyone
Even if the U.S. could greatly expand its apprenticeship program, would it be a good idea? It might boost the economy, but the benefit might come at the expense of economic mobility, say critics.
To understand why, 1983 is a good place to start. That year, President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education published "A Nation at Risk," a broad-reaching assessment of the country's education system. The commission recommended heavier emphasis on math, science, English, and other academic pursuits for high school students, rather than vocational training.
"In America what we decided to do in '83, and to great applause, is we said that every kid's going to get a solid academic education through high school," says Carnevale. The "academic education" stressed core courses like English, science, math, and social studies—coursework designed to get students into college. The reforms inspired by that commission helped to implant the view that every student can and should go to college into the national psyche. It also meant that students were steered away from classes that introduced them to some marketable job skills.
The idea was that preparing every student for college gives everyone equal opportunity. Otherwise, students might be unnecessarily "tracked" away from learning calculus and into learning basic electrician skills...and poor and minority students in particular might be steered away from college. That fear is well-founded, says one expert.
"We used to have vocational programs and vocational schools, and it's true that they really were tracked a lot by social class," says Peter Cookson, senior fellow at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank. Those programs, as well as some in Europe right now, he says, create a sort of de facto caste system.
"In places in Europe, I don't want to pretend these aren't class-based programs," Cookson says.
But then again, steering all students away from learning career and technical skills in high school means that the dream of upward mobility can become a curse.