The Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds

We’re interested in the Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) because it uses a word that rarely appears in the education media, federal grants, or foundation priorities: “apprenticeship.”

Apprenticeship has the ring of an out-of-circulation word, like “aesthete” or “monocle.”* Apprenticeships were common until the 20th Century, when either formal education or industrial blue-collar manufacturing jobs largely replaced them in the United States. But the number of manufacturing jobs has been declining for decades—and those that remain tend to require advanced skills—which has left formal education as the primary way we, as a society, take people aged 13 and up and try to turn them into productive—in the economic sense—adults.

The problem, however, is that a lot of people are poorly suited to sitting still and quietly for long periods of time while conducting abstract symbol manipulation. I’ve written about this issue before, in “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths,” and a rare media account that discusses apprenticeship appeared in The Atlantic: “Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training Its Workers.” Apprenticeships haven’t gotten the attention they deserves. College dropout rates remain stubbornly high, and the solution favored by the feds is better college preparation and more wraparound supportive services in college (we discussed this in “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree“). So far that hasn’t worked out well.

I’ve got an unusual perspective on formal education and college because in grad school I taught freshmen at the University of Arizona. The experience was educational for me for many reasons, one being that many if not most students seemed to have no idea about why they were in college or what precisely they were supposed to do there. Many didn’t particularly like being in classrooms, and it showed. Not surprisingly, only something like half of U of A freshmen complete a degree with six years. Students who don’t complete degrees get saddled with enormous debts and no degrees to show for it.

Not everyone is well-suited to the college environment, and that isn’t me being an elitist jerk. It’s an observation that should be obvious to everyone who has taught at a non-elite college. We—again, as a society—should have a viable system for training people who don’t like abstract symbol manipulation. They can learn and do useful things. I’m well-suited to abstract symbol manipulation—that’s my entire job—but I can acknowledge that many people aren’t.

The apprenticeship model and the university model should have porous borders—people who realize they don’t want to be apprentices should be able to pursue university education, and those in universities who realize they’d rather become electricians should be able to do that. Right now, however, public policy is oriented almost entirely towards the university model, to the detriment of many of those who don’t fit the model. We’re pleased to see the AAI as being an exception to the general principle.


* Though graduate school is still conducted largely in the apprenticeship model, which is sometimes acknowledged, since in a way no one really knows how to teach research or writing—they’re both taste-based skills, which makes them inherently difficult to teach.

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