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WASHINGTON, D.C. – While the Covid-19 virus was shuttering on-campus classes and emptying dorms at colleges across the U.S., it wasn’t the only education topic under discussion in Congress. Lawmakers were working on solutions to some of higher education’s pressing problems – voting to block a rule from the Department of Education that would have made it more difficult for defrauded borrowers to receive debt relief, for example, and proposing legislation to encourage alternative educational paths after high school.
Hoping to increase registered apprenticeships beyond the approximately 585,000 that exist now, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) is advocating for a first-ever reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Act, which was first enacted in 1937. She introduced a draft bill in early March that asks for $400 million in fiscal year 2021 for apprenticeship programs. In fiscal year 2019, Congress appropriated $160 million to the Department of Labor to expand apprenticeship programs under the National Apprenticeship Act.
Though the likelihood of the bill becoming law isn’t strong right now, the draft bill, and a recent Congressional hearing for it, speak to a larger message being heard more often these days: Think less about getting an expensive four-year degree and instead pick up a trade. And this message is one worth considering, labor market experts say.
“Many Americans believe that attending a traditional four-year college is critical to obtaining economic success. But this specific path of obtaining a higher education may not be the best fit for everyone,” Davis said in a Congressional hearing in early March. Apprenticeship programs, she said, “combine business needs with quality training standards and have a long track record of success.”
Her remarks and bill echo much of what we’ve heard from President Donald Trump’s administration in its push for more career and technical education. Trump touted career and technical education in his most recent State of the Union address. His proposed budget for the Education Department for 2021 asked for more money for vocational and technical education. And the mounting student debt that college students and graduates must grapple with also presents a compelling argument for more apprenticeship programs.
The proposed bill calls for an expansion of pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs, more diversity within apprenticeship programs, streamlining the standards for programs, and more.
Apprenticeships can help fill workforce demands while students earn a living wage, said Katie Spiker, director of government relations for the National Skills Coalition, an advocacy group for improved skills training.
“Apprenticeship programs offer the opportunity to gain skills in an in-demand industry, access a paycheck immediately while learning, and all without taking on any debt, or much less debt than someone may encounter in a four-year degree,” she said.
Apprentices make up about 0.3 percent of the overall workforce. Many apprenticeships last for four years. The careers they lead to range widely, from air conditioning mechanics to carpenters to orthodontic technicians. And the pay isn’t bad either.
You can make $60,000 annually as an apprentice “and a lot more with overtime, and that’s roughly equivalent to a B.A. degree,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, adding that the long-term earnings of an apprenticeship may rival those of traditional higher education. He believes we need more apprenticeships, he said.
Related: Where are all the women apprentices?
“Apprenticeships will beat a substantial share of B.A.s,” he said.
So why hasn’t the U.S. invested more in registered apprenticeships?
“In Sweden kids are fine with not going to college; in America the middle class is not fine with their kids not going to college,” said Carnevale. “The mythology of the journey from high school to Harvard is very firmly implanted in our minds.”
At the congressional level, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone advocating for apprenticeships who has actually had one.
“There’s 214 lawyers in Congress and only one electrician, and you’re looking at him,” Rep. Donald Norcross, a Democrat from New Jersey, said at the hearing. “I know a little bit about this, and the narrative that somehow in order to make it in this world you have to go to a four-year degree is something that we’re hearing today over and over that is absolutely not true.”
This story about apprenticeship programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.