Should Students Swap Debt for an Apprenticeship?

Should Students Swap Debt for an Apprenticeship?
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As student debt grows and opportunities to earn a living wage dwindle, many have suggested that greater focus on apprenticeships may be the answer. Not to be confused with internships, apprenticeships are usually long-lasting, hands-on training programs where the expectation is that they will turn into a full-time position. This June, the U.S. government expanded federal funding for apprenticeships as part of a wider endeavor to give on-the-job training programs prestige equal to that of higher education.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average starting salary for an apprenticeship is $60,000.

In the U.S. and the U.K., apprenticeships have traditionally been viewed as less desirable than college. In countries like Switzerland and Germany, though, apprenticeships are firmly embedded in the education system, and with great success. A couple of pioneering initiatives in the American South have shown how local economies can be boosted by apprenticeships.

It was almost 15 years ago that Lockheed Martin realized the average age of its aircraft engineers in San Antonio was nearing an “experienced” 47. Desperate for a pipeline of young employees, the company approached the Alamo Community College network for a solution. Today, the Alamo Academies model partners with San Antonio industry, colleges and high schools, and hinges on students receiving daily technical training and a paid internship alongside their academic studies.

“The reason it’s been so successful is because industry has consistently been at the table,” says Gene Bowman, Alamo Academies’ executive director. Bowman doesn’t approach industries that he thinks would be right for the program; instead, they approach him. “If it wasn’t successful and wasn’t meeting industry needs, they would have done what they do for any other business line without positive ROI — shut it down,” he explains. Far from getting nixed, the program has expanded to include other industries: IT and security, advanced technology and manufacturing, health professions and heavy equipment. Huge multinationals that now rely on Alamo Academies for employees include Toyota and Boeing.

We’re righting those wrongs by showing these kids other, postsecondary opportunities.

Mary Taylor, Kentucky Department of Education

Getting skilled workers straight into jobs after high school boosts the national economy too, says Mary Taylor, who works for the Kentucky Department of Education and its TRACK pre-apprenticeship program. “Student loan debt is at $1.4 trillion,” she says, pointing out that fee-free apprenticeships help alleviate the crisis. On a more personal level, Taylor has been disheartened by “wonderful, smart students” not getting the opportunities they deserve because they didn’t want to go to college. “We’re righting those wrongs by showing these kids other, postsecondary opportunities,” she says.

With TRACK, employers choose career and technical education courses for students to study so that when they join an apprenticeship after graduation, they already have the basics to get on with the job. As Taylor puts it, “Students can graduate on Friday and walk in to work on Monday as a full-time, employed apprentice.” TRACK recently added early childhood education to its courses in manufacturing and skilled trades, and hopes to expand into everything from IT to accounting and marketing.

But embedding apprenticeships in school curricula isn’t easy, warns Mark Dunetz, president of New York organization New Visions for Public Schools (NVPS). Meeting the needs of industry, schools and students in these situations is “tremendously complex,” he says, particularly as apprenticeships ought to “complement, rather than compete with, high schools’ commitment to graduating their students.”

That’s why NVPS is helping manage a new apprenticeship initiative in the South Bronx, funded by JPMorgan Chase & Co. The $6 million program seeks to train students in three of the area’s growing industries: IT, health care, and transportation, distribution and logistics. The latter industry is expected to have 3,500 jobs in the Bronx by 2022, with entry-level workers commanding salaries of $45,000. With 23 percent of young people out of school and out of work in the South Bronx, the initiative could make a huge difference.

Given his line of work, Dunetz has witnessed programs like his succeed before. “Often students have no knowledge of the careers that would be most interesting and viable to them,” he notes. “As somebody who has seen firsthand the impact initiatives like this can have, I’m excited.”