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Can Apprenticeships Save the Middle Class?

The Trump administration is doubling down on the workforce development model that made the president a (reality television) star: apprenticeships.
A sign for then-candidate Donald Trump is displayed on a front porch on August 14th, 2016, in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania.

A sign for then-candidate Donald Trump is displayed on a front porch on August 14th, 2016, in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania.

In an effort to get its legislative agenda back on track, the Trump administration has declared this week "workforce development week." The initiative, which is being spearheaded by Ivanka Trump, is meant to focus attention on the kinds of economic issues (jobs, wages, and so forth) that many Donald Trump voters care about and that many observers expected would play a more prominent role in Trump's recently released budget proposal. While the administration seems to be focusing broadly on technical, skills-based education in general, it's also specifically doubling down on the workforce development model that made Trump a (reality television) star: apprenticeships.

Here's what Ivanka Trump had to say about workforce development week on Fox and Friends:

There are six million available American jobs.... [W]e're constantly hearing from CEOs that they have job openings but they don't have workers with the skill set they need to fill those jobs. Really bridging that gap and bringing experienced based education to the forefront. So apprenticeship, actually, that's the model.

Likewise, at a visit to a technical college in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, Trump joked that he "love[d] the name apprentice" and said he hoped that every high school in America would eventually offer apprenticeships.

The administration's focus on the apprenticeship model makes sense: In addition to Trump's obvious affinity for the lingo, it's a model that's universally popular. By allowing workers to "earn while they learn," apprenticeship programs reduce the burdens of training and education on employees. It also doesn't hurt that employers play such a large role in designing the programs, which helps ensure the training workers receive is, indeed, relevant.

Plus, apprenticeship programs draw bipartisan support. Barack Obama made apprenticeships a priority during his administration, and the Obamas announced a $2 million donation to summer job and apprenticeship programs in Chicago shortly after leaving office. And it's not just the federal government; states both red and blue have been trying to expand their programs in recent years. South Carolina's program, which combines an aggressive marketing campaign with tax credits and technical assistance for employers, is often cited as a particularly successful model.

"I think we should think about apprenticeship as one of a range of models that might work better for these students who are not bound for college."

The popularity of apprenticeship programs no doubt has a lot to do with their success. A 2012 assessment of registered apprenticeship programs in 10 different states by Mathematica Policy Research, for example, found that people who completed a registered apprenticeship earned approximately $240,000 more over the course of their careers than similar non-participants. The researchers also estimated that the social benefits of the programs dramatically exceed the social costs. Companies seem to like the programs too: A study of 13 companies and intermediaries with apprenticeship programs published by the United States Chamber of Commerce and Case Western Reserve University concluded that companies were "unanimous in their support of apprenticeships" and that companies "believe that apprenticeships improve their overall performance and provide a competitive advantage over other firms."

"A lot of people rush off to college, and they're not really prepared for academic work, and they have trouble completing the programs for academic reasons," says Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor who studies workforce policy. "The feeling is those people need a reasonable alternative."

Donald Trump on the set of The Apprentice.

Donald Trump on the set of The Apprentice.

Holzer is also quick to point out that these programs are not without their drawbacks. For starters, the specificity of the training means that the skills learned aren't always very portable or generalizable. A bigger issue is whether apprenticeships are, in fact, the solution for every worker. "The big question you have to ask here is: What's the alternative? If the alternative is nothing, then yeah, it's almost certainly better than nothing," Holzer says. "But it's not better for everyone. For people who can earn a four-year degree, most of the time that's going to be a better option."

And even for people who aren't considering four-year degrees, apprenticeships still may not be the best option. There are many different models of vocational education, Holzer says, and some are better suited to different workers or employers. There are, for example, models that combine paid learning (apprenticeships or paid internships) with two-year community college degrees; or sector-based training programs, in which industry associations and community colleges partner up to train workers for in-demand jobs; or stackable certification programs, in which workers earn a certificate, work for a while, then return to school for another certificate.

"I think we should think about apprenticeship as one of a range of models that might work better for these students who are not bound for college, at least not right away," Holzer says. "But there are all these other models that also try to provide a range of high-quality alternatives. For different employers, the other models might work better."

The specifics of the administration's plan to expand apprenticeship programs aren't clear—a planned policy speech and announcement at the Department of Labor was canceled due to the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, and there are conflicting media reports about whether the administration plans to call for increased funding for these programs. But while apprenticeship programs escaped the axe, the president's budget proposal calls for dramatic funding cuts to pretty much everything else: k-12 education, higher education, most job training programs, and many other Department of Labor programs. And unless you believe that apprenticeship programs can solve America's workforce issues all on their own, that's a big problem.

"If you have evidence that some of the job training programs are not effective, which they're not, you can re-allocate the money to more effective programs," Holzer says. "And a lot of money in higher education isn't spent well, so you could talk about allowing more of the money to be used for non-college programs like apprenticeship ... or you could think about changing the incentives of how community colleges spend their money ... but just mindlessly cutting budgets isn't going to get you there."