"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.
Gaps in Education and the Workforce
Forcing all students to read Salinger and learn cosines contributes to dropout rates, says Carenvale. And when students are denied the introduction to technical education in high school, it creates a gap in the education system and steers those students away from careers that they could do without a college degree.
"There's a missing middle in the American system. There has been since the '80s." says Carnevale.
Educational gaps mean gaps in the job market. The Manufacturing Institute and consulting firm Deloitte reported in 2011 that there were nearly 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the U.S., largely due to under-qualified candidates. This could be one area where an apprenticeship system seems like it could help; when employers have a stake in training employees, they can train them for precisely the qualifications they're looking for.
One way to encourage students into vocational education and apprenticeships without risking further class divides, says Cookson, is making sure that students know that career education, whether in high school or after graduation, does not necessarily have to be a "lesser" course.
"There's usually apprenticeship systems where young men and women learn advanced skills. It isn't just really learning how to change oil in the car," he says.
For his part, Ray Lambert says he saw that apprenticeship was a good path early on. As the fourth generation in his family to take on an operating engineer apprenticeship, he had a good look at the career path long before he joined this program. Though he went to trade school to become a certified welder first, he ultimately chose to follow in his father's footsteps.
While Lambert had an early introduction to his career path, Chambers believes that not enough people get that opportunity, as educators, not just students, have taken their eyes off of technical skills.
"What happens is a lot of vocational system has become dumping grounds," says Chambers. Those vocational programs that are still around, he says, become home to the students who couldn't make it in the academic tracks, as administrators focus on how many students they can send to college. As a result, students are by and large not prepared for jobs that currently exist in the manufacturing field. Better training earlier on, he says, would make his program's training much easier.
"If [schools] are not held accountable for vocational ed, it's a fallback. We're going to lose our manufacturing expertise as a country because of it," he says.
Though "tracking" may be a concern for the public education system, the beauty of apprenticeship is that it's a meritocracy, says Sean Myers, assistant director of the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, which trains electrical and telecommunications workers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He says he has no knowledge of the socioeconomic backgrounds of his program's apprentices, but no amount of nepotism or ability to pay hefty tuitions is going to give any student a leg up.