A New Look at Apprenticeships as a Path to the Middle Class

July 21, 2015
By Nelson D. Schwartz
From NYTimes.com

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — With its gleaming classrooms, sports teams and even a pep squad, the Apprentice School that serves the enormous Navy shipyard here bears little resemblance to a traditional vocational education program.

And that is exactly the point. While the cheerleaders may double as trainee pipe fitters, electricians and insulators, on weekends they’re no different from college students anywhere as they shout for the Apprentice School Builders on the sidelines.

But instead of accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, Apprentice School students are paid an annual salary of $54,000 by the final year of the four-year program, and upon graduation are guaranteed a job with Huntington Ingalls Industries, the military contractor that owns Newport News Shipbuilding.

“There’s a hunger among young people for good, well-paying jobs that don’t require an expensive four-year degree,” said Sarah Steinberg, vice president for global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase. “The Apprentice School is the gold standard of what a high-quality apprenticeship program can be.”

Long regarded by parents, students and many educators as an off ramp from the college track, apprenticeships are getting a fresh look in many quarters. The idea has recently captured the attention of several presidential candidates from both parties, with employer-oriented apprentice programs increasingly seen as a way to appeal to anxious Americans looking for an alternative route to a secure middle-income job.

Last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed a plan that would offer companies a $1,500 tax credit for each apprenticeship slot they fill. And in a speech laying out his economic plan on Tuesday, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican primary contender, vowed to expand apprenticeships and vocational training if he makes it to the White House.

Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, who formally entered the presidential primary race on Monday, has promoted apprenticeships in his state and increased funding for them even as he has cut aid to Wisconsin’s vaunted university system.

“We know this works,” said Thomas E. Perez, the labor secretary, describing how big companies have long trained young people in Germany, which has 40 apprentices per 1,000 workers, compared to about three per 1,000 in the United States. “It’s not hard to figure out why the Germans have a youth unemployment rate that is half what it is here.”

But there is a downside to the innovative approach used at the Apprentice School in combining skills-based education, a college-like experience and a virtually free ride for its nearly 800 students (even class rings and textbooks are covered): This approach has been rarely duplicated elsewhere.

Despite prominent mentions by President Obama in several State of the Union addresses and bipartisan support in Congress, apprenticeship programs have struggled to gain a foothold among employers.

Furthermore, the programs were devastated by the sharp losses in manufacturing and construction jobs that started with the last recession.

Between 2007 and 2013, the number of active apprentices in the United States fell by over one-third, from about 451,000 to just under 288,000, according to Labor Department data. In 2014, that number increased for the first time since the recession, rising by 27,000.

Now, Mr. Perez has set a goal of doubling enrollment by 2018.

In late June, he traveled to North Carolina, where he was joined by two local Republican members of Congress, to spotlight Washington’s efforts to expand apprenticeships, including $100 million in new grants to be awarded this autumn.

In Mooresville, touring the factory floor and giving a speech at Ameritech Die & Mold, which has teamed with local high schools and a nearby community college to recruit and train its apprentices, Mr. Perez said what was needed was not simply more government financing or new private-sector programs.

“At the educational level, we need a comprehensive strategy to change the hearts and minds of parents,” Mr. Perez told the audience, which included several parents of current Ameritech apprentices. “There are highly selective, four-year colleges that are easier to get into than many apprenticeship programs.”

The Apprentice School gets more than 4,000 applicants for about 230 spots annually, giving it an admission rate about equivalent to that of Harvard.

Perhaps the greatest reason that students and their parents are showing more interest in apprenticeships is the financial equation. While the typical graduate from a four-year private college in 2014 left campus with a debt load of $31,000 and started work earning about $45,000 a year, Apprentice School students emerge debt free and can make nearly $10,000 more in their first job.

Other programs are equally promising. For Ameritech workers like Shane Harmon, who completed an apprenticeship there in 2012 and earned an associate degree at Central Piedmont Community College as part of the program, a middle-class lifestyle is already within reach.

Many of his high school friends who have graduated from college are back home living with their parents, Mr. Harmon said. By contrast, at age 23, he already owns a home, has no student debt and is paid $18 an hour.

“I didn’t want to sit in a classroom for four years, not knowing if I’d have a job,” he said. “I’m a hands-on guy.”

The trade-offs between college and an apprenticeship inevitably raise one of the thorniest educational and economic issues today: Who should or should not go to college.

When the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential contender in 2012 who has begun a long-shot campaign again, brought up the question during his last primary bid, he was mocked in some quarters.

And economic data clearly shows that most holders of bachelor’s degrees will earn far more over the course of their working lives than typical high school graduates with technical training, and more than recipients of associate’s degrees.

But that’s not the real issue for many young people, said Mike Petters, chief executive of Huntington Ingalls, which owns and financially supports the Apprentice School.

“If you’re in the two-thirds of Americans that don’t have a college degree, how do you feel if someone says to be a success, you have to have it?” Mr. Petters said. “It shouldn’t be a requirement for a middle-class life. We have people in our organization who don’t and are great, who’ve raised families and had great lives.”

It is not necessarily an either-or proposition, according to the director of the Apprentice School, Everett Jordan. A new partnership between the Apprentice School and Old Dominion University in nearby Norfolk, Va., allows apprentices to earn a bachelor’s degree in five to eight years, paid for by Huntington Ingalls.

Mr. Jordan, himself a 1977 graduate of the Apprentice School, notes that other alumni have gone on to earn degrees in medicine, business and other fields, or served as top executives at Huntington Ingalls. Of the current crop, he estimates about 85 percent will eventually take on more senior salaried positions at the company.

But however much Mr. Everett and other administrators try to make the Apprentice School resemble a traditional college, its connection to a military contractor means that in some ways it resembles a top military academy like West Point more than a typical university. For many people, that is a plus.

For example, students receive training in dining etiquette, how to buy a house and how to prepare for job interviews.

Similarly, having a dedicated customer with very deep pockets — the Pentagon — enables Huntington Ingalls to cover the $270,000 cost of training each apprentice.

“The skilled worker is a public good,” said Mr. Petters, who occasionally sounds more like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City and other liberal politicians than an otherwise conservative corporate executive. “Do you give kids swimming lessons or do you take them and throw them off the end of pier and see if they can swim? We believe in swimming lessons.”

He added: “The Apprentice School has been and will forever be the centerpiece of what we do here. I know there’s a red-state view and a blue-state view. This is a shipbuilder’s view.”

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(above image courtesy of NYTimes.com)