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  • Matthew Hora

3 problems with apprenticeships as the panacea to the "skills gap" problem

If there’s one certainty about higher education policymaking right now, it’s that work-based learning in the form of apprenticeships and internships are seeing their moment in the spotlight. From President Trump recently proclaiming that, “Apprenticeships are going to be a big, big factor in our country,” to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker arguing that all recipients of bachelor’s degrees be required to have an internship experience, work-based learning is now widely seen as a panacea to issues with the nation's economic and educational problems.

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Yet after spending the past four years studying how the skills gap argument is impacting the nation’s colleges and universities, the Trump administration’s proposals about apprenticeships do little to inspire confidence that the challenges associated with creating a viable and robust system of work-based learning programs are truly appreciated. Perhaps more problematic is a bigger question – would apprenticeships really meet students’ long-term needs and the skill-related challenges of the U.S. labor market?

Given that the widespread adoption of apprenticeships would affect millions of students, higher education professionals need to grab a seat at the table and advocate that more attention be paid to teaching, learning and students’ long-term career success as work-based learning programs begin to be designed and implemented on a large scale.

Here, I outline three problems with the current advocacy for apprenticeships that policymakers and postsecondary professionals need to be particularly mindful of.

1. Lack of thought about quality control and institutional autonomy

The first cause for concern with the administration’s new proposal is that inadequately resourced and regulated apprenticeship programs will be foisted upon departments and institutions that are unprepared to administer them.

Designing and implementing an apprenticeship program at scale is no small matter – just ask the Germans or Australians . Even a quick glance at the administrative apparatus required for established programs such as Apprenticeship Carolina and Wisconsin Apprenticeship reveals that state agencies articulate and uphold quality standards, serve as a matchmaker among educators, employers, and students, and ensure that programs comply with federal labor laws via a strict registration process.

But now, in the government-wide spirit of deregulation, the Trump administration is moving to streamline the process for registering apprenticeships with the federal government, and to create a new class of apprenticeships called “industry recognized apprenticeships” – a shift that raises a host of questions and concerns. Who will ensure quality control with these new apprenticeships? Will they be required to follow existing state and federal standards?

For some observers, the early signs are not promising. Brent Parton of the New America Foundation argues that the new initiative is “adding noise” to an already fragmented and complicated regulatory landscape.

So what are the implications of this push for apprenticeships for the nation’s colleges and universities? In the recent executive order the Secretary of Education is told to support efforts of 2- and 4-year institutions to “incorporate apprenticeship programs into their courses of study.” Higher education professionals need to be asking what this means, and whether institutions would be encouraged or even mandated to offer apprenticeship programs regardless of their mission or capacity.

While that prospect may strike some as unlikely, there is a precedent. In his most recent budget proposal for the University of Wisconsin System, Governor Walker included a provision that would have required students to complete an internship in order to receive a bachelor’s degree. This unfunded mandate was fortunately stripped from the budget by state legislators, and some career services professionals and educators argued that the policy was not only untenable in administrative terms but also violated faculty and student autonomy.

But proposals like this will resurface in the near future, and when they do, faculty, administrators and students should be prepared to advocate for a slow, deliberate and evidence-based planning process.

2. There is a general lack of attention to teaching and learning issues

A core principle of apprenticeship throughout the world is the notion of “earn and learn,” but one of the troubling things about current advocacy for the apprenticeship model is that details regarding the “learn” part of the equation are rarely, if ever, part of the discussion.

A more relevant, authentic type of learning in an apprenticeship is assumed, simply because students are spending more time doing the work, rather than sitting in a stuffy classroom, learning subjects that will never be useful or applicable in the real-world.

This, of course, is just as misguided as assuming a student is learning simply because they’re sitting through a brilliant lecture. In classroom settings, evidence is mounting about the need for students to be actively engaged in constructing their own understanding of the material. Similarly, work-based learning at its best provides students with opportunities to apply new knowledge to real-world tasks while being mentored by experts who gradually fade from overseeing the learner’s activities.

Making matters more complex for apprenticeships, however, is the need for academic learning to be coordinated with workplace tasks, so that the “learn” and the “earn” experiences reinforce one another in pedagogical, curricular, and experiential terms.

Attention to teaching and learning is critical because employers desire a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities in their workforce – not just technical expertise in welding, nursing, or coding. The evidence on this point is unambiguous. Employers need workers with habits of mind such as complex problem-solving and what labor economists call “non-cognitive skills” such as oral and written communication, teamwork, and the ability (and desire) to continually learn.

So educators need to ask: Are these diverse skills and related issues of teaching and learning being deeply thought about by those at the federal and state levels advocating for an apprenticeship renaissance? At the present time, the answer to this question is clearly “no.”

3. What about the long-term benefits of general education for students?

Apprenticeships are often touted as one of the best ways for young people to get a job immediately after graduation, with little debt and guaranteed long-term employability in their field. Indeed, the idea that a bachelor’s degree was an unaffordable exercise that had “no direct connection to jobs” comprised the administration’s core argument in the preamble to the recent executive order on apprenticeships.

Yet studies on the long-term employment outcomes of students in apprenticeships relative to those on a college preparatory track, tells a different story. Research by the economist Eric Hanushek shows that while immediate benefits accrue to those on the vocational track, they “decay” over time as their technical skills become obsolete and industries evolve. In a recent article, Hanushek argues that instead of more vocational programs, U.S. students need “more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.”

Consequently, policymakers should be supporting educational models that are associated with developing students’ basic cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and fortunately, a model for cultivating these diverse competencies exists - general education. While the general education and liberal arts model has fervent supporters and critics, it is an effective approach for cultivating complex reasoning and inter-personal skills while also training students in the disciplines. Consider that most vocational programs in U.S. technical colleges require general education courses, or what the labor economist Anthony Carnevale once called “putting an occupational point on your educational pencil.”

In other words, while apprenticeships are excellent vehicles for smoothing transitions to the workforce, a more in-depth general education may be essential for students’ long-term success in a labor market with demanding (and evolving) skills requirements.

Looking ahead: A cautionary tale for higher education

Regardless of whether the current focus on apprenticeships proves to be an inflection point in how U.S. higher education is structured and delivered in the 21st century, one thing is clear - faculty, staff and administrators must keep a close eye on how these programs unfold in their cities and states, acting as advocates for students to ensure that the growing “market” for apprenticeships isn’t flooded with shoddily designed and taught programs.

Take it from this observer in Wisconsin – dramatic policy and programmatic changes can happen right under your nose, and as educational professionals we need to be engaged, skeptical advocates for evidence-based policymaking and student’s long-term interests.

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