Despite the benefits of college for graduates, only 34 percent of 25- to 29-year-old Americans have a bachelor’s degree or more. To get a better understanding of the millennial workforce, the public gaze needs to extend beyond college students.
Some millennials, holding no desire to attend college, choose apprenticeships to gain relevant work experience and avoid college debt, according to USA Today.
In the changing American economy, apprenticeships “are part of a revival of sorts” that’s attracting more students. Previously, their numbers declined due to “factory automation, the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs and the decline of unions, which spearheaded many apprenticeships.” Since 2011, 100,000 new apprentices were registered with the Department of Labor. Though the number of American manufacturing jobs have declined, apprenticeships can still act as a path for career and social advancement.
The American working class had been overlooked and funneled into the higher education system, which offers an inflexible model for students who would prefer hands-on learning to exams and textbooks. Community colleges have realized that disconnect and are “trying to find a way to streamline their offerings” to benefit students, according to Inside Higher Ed, though that process will be slow to change and take hold.
Some apprenticeships cooperate with community colleges and trade schools by blending classroom instruction with hands-on learning, which offers students a better education without poaching students and becoming a threat to community colleges.
If community colleges aren’t successful in embracing dynamism, however, apprenticeships could lure more students away. The Department of Labor awarded $175 million in 2015 as part of a grant competition to spur the skilled trades. Recipients pledged “to train and hire more than 34,000 new apprentices” through 2020. About 358,000 workers participated in an apprenticeship registered with the Department of Labor in 2012, compared to about 20 million college students in 2015. Though the total number of apprenticeships is higher, it’s still a small part of the American economy for young workers.
“Apprenticeship offers an alternative to the ‘academic-only’ college focus of U.S. policymakers. Increasingly, placing all of our career-preparation eggs in one basket is leaving young adults, especially minority young men, well behind,” Robert Lerman wrote for the Brookings Institution.
Expanding the alternative to college, then, holds ample promise if done effectively.
With so much attention on college students, the reality of young Americans and how many earn degrees gets distorted. Often, high-school graduates aren’t aware that other legitimate career paths aside from college exist. More than 1,000 occupations are eligible for an apprenticeships and the average wage for a journeyperson who completed an apprenticeship was almost $50,000 annually. The challenge to repay debt isn’t present after an apprenticeship ends, either.
Skilled trades encompass careers in health care, information technology, and other fields where many millennials attend college instead. Were they to skip college, they could avoid the debt burden and deceptive for-profit colleges that can’t deliver on their recruitment promises. Such a change could educate more young Americans, reduce their debt burdens, and spur economic growth.
Apprenticeships don’t guarantee a job afterward. Employment remains a concern, and the American businesses would need to become more friendly toward an apprentice culture that finds value in investing in young workers before such programs could blossom. However, such an initiative offers an alternative to policymakers whose only answer to youth struggles is a promise of a free college degree.