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The Return of the Apprentice

U.S. businesses struggle to find workers with certain key skills, but a quarter of young men drop out of high school. Does we need to rethink how we train kids for jobs?
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The idea of the apprentice is more musty than fresh, conjuring images either of runaway mops and buckets or Charles Dickens-era child servitude. And let's be honest, whatever it's real worth vocational training doesn't exactly sound sexy either, as it's most often discussed here in America in conjunction with struggling or at-risk youth. For all the recent hubbub about the cost of attending and the burden of student loan debt, college is still where it's at (unless you're Rick Santorum). But does that need to change?

Two different but interesting posts out recently come at this question from different angles, but both should be of interest to business owners, as they directly concern providing companies with more of the skilled workers they need. The first from top economics blog Marginal Revolution points to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece by the post's author, George Mason university professor Alex Tabarrok. The piece argues that college has been oversold and advances the case for alternate education paths. Tabarrok writes:

In the 21st century, an astounding 25 percent of American men do not graduate from high school. A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. "Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell the students, "and all will be well." Lots of students, however, crash before they reach the end of the road. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to an education.

Consider those offered in Europe. In Germany, 97 percent of students graduate from high school, but only a third of these students go on to college. In the United States, we graduate fewer students from high school, but nearly two-thirds of those we graduate go to college. So are German students poorly educated? Not at all.

Instead of college, German students enter training and apprenticeship programs—many of which begin during high school. By the time they finish, they have had a far better practical education than most American students—equivalent to an American technical degree—and, as a result, they have an easier time entering the work force. Similarly, in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, between 40 to 70 percent of students opt for an educational program that combines classroom and workplace learning.

Of course, in Germany students must also choose an academic or vocational path quite early (around 12) and have a harder time shifting direction should they discover a late blooming interest in another field, a concept that might be harder to sell in America where reinvention is celebrated and the early tracking of students is feared for its potential to perpetuate inequalities. But Tabarrok is correct in pointing out that having such narrow options for gaining marketable skills is lousy for many students, lousy for many employers and lousy for the economy as a whole.

Fast Company may have found another home grown solution to part of the problem, one that also embraces the apprenticeship model. The piece by E.B. Boyd profiles a new Hacker School aimed at ending Silicon Valley's perpetual struggle to find enough trained engineers. The school, which is based in New York, joins several other ventures aiming to train techies, including Code Academy and Dev Bootcamp, but with some key differences from the other options. It lasts three months, has no classes and charges zero tuition. Boyd explains:

The three [founders] make money through Hackruiter, a separate arm of their venture, when companies like Airbnb snap up the participants. (The average recruiting fee is $20,000, the industry standard.)

And once school opens, there's no instruction. Instead, participants work side-by-side on personal projects, usually involving open-source software. The learning comes by being jammed together in the same place and having smart people nearby to learn from and ask questions of. "It's like a writers retreat for computer programmers," Albert tells Fast Company.

The school is attracting VC funding and is currently training up its third bunch of recruits.

Do you think apprenticeship-type programs are the right prescription for what ails the U.S. education system?

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Mar 8, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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