The Hollow Promise of Youth Apprenticeship

By Harvey Kantor

Thanks to the election of Bill Clinton, it is almost certain that Congress will soon consider a proposal to spend $1.2 billion over the next five years to create as many as 300,000 youth apprenticeships for those who have been called the “forgotten half” of American youth — the more than 50% of high school students who do not go on to college and whose life chances have been diminished by changes in the American economy. Patterned after similar programs in Europe, especially the system in Germany where upwards of one-half of all high school students are apprentices, Clinton’s proposal would combine paid work and on-the-job training with related classroom instruction in the last two years of high school and a third year of “professional-technical” education. At the end of that time, according to the Clinton plan, students would receive a certificate of occupational competence in addition to a high school diploma and would have the option of going on to college or entering the workforce in their chosen field.1

Support for such a job-based education program has been remarkably widespread. In addition to the Clinton administration, several educational policy-makers, foundation heads, blue-ribbon commissions, and state legislatures have endorsed similar ideas. In a report titled The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America (1988), the W. T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship headed by former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe III underscored the economic difficulties facing non-college youth and endorsed a variety of policies, including cooperative education, pre-employment internships and apprenticeship, to help young people bridge the gap between school and work. In its report, America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! (1990), the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce also commented on the declining earnings of high school graduates and the lack of career-oriented programs for those not enrolling in college. It proposed a system of national competency standards for various occupations and called on employers to help prepare young people for employment through part-time work and training. Finally, the Pew Memorial Trust, the nation’s second largest foundation, recently lent its support to a project to implement youth apprenticeship programs in fifteen sites around the country, and, in the last few years, legislatures in Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Oregon, and Wisconsin have passed legislation to establish youth apprenticeship programs in their states.2

Although the sponsors of these proposals and projects acknowledge that implementing an apprenticeship system will be difficult, all of them believe that success in developing such a system will have a number of beneficial economic and social effects. By upgrading the skills of future workers, they contend, apprenticeship will improve the quality of the nation’s workforce and thus make the American economy more productive and competitive. In addition, many say, after starting their apprenticeships, non-college-bound students will see a direct link between what they do in the classroom and their future occupational careers. Consequently, they will work harder in school in order to acquire the skills they need to succeed in the labor market. Finally, some have even argued that by exposing young people to more responsible adults in the workplace, an apprenticeship system would help adolescents mature more quickly and thereby make it less likely they will get involved with drugs, commit crimes, or get pregnant.3

Even allowing for the rhetorical oversell that usually accompanies the introduction of new educational programs, much of this sounds persuasive. Since the introduction of vocational education early in the twentieth century, reformers have argued that linking the classroom more closely to the work-place would make school more attractive to disaffected young people and improve the nation’s economic competitiveness. But, despite its apparent potential, there are good reasons to question whether apprenticeship can do much more than previous vocational programs to get young people to study more, to improve their job prospects, or to make the economy more productive. In fact, by focusing attention so exclusively on education at the expense of other public policies designed to end racial discrimination, encourage high wages and full employment, and foster the reorganization of work, it may actually do more to dim than to brighten the prospects for genuine economic reform.

Apprenticeship and Vocational Education

One reason to be skeptical about the claims made for apprenticeship is the history of vocational education. At the turn of the century, for example, the early advocates of vocational education maintained that by linking education more closely to the workplace, vocational education would keep young people in school, increase wages and job opportunities for poor and working-class youth, and make the American economy more competitive in the battle for international markets. Yet, even though vocational education has become a durable, well-funded program, there is little evidence that it has accomplished what its original supporters hoped it would. On the contrary, according to most of the major evaluations done over the last fifty years, the majority of high school vocational programs have had few positive effects on earnings or employment and those that have improved their students’ chances of finding a job have been chiefly in fields like cosmetology and clerical work that are dominated by women and pay poorly because of sex discrimination in the labor market.4

Largely because of this history of failure, proponents have sought to differentiate apprenticeship from previous vocational education programs. Apprenticeships, they point out, are longer, more intensive, and most important, have much closer connections with employers. As striking as these differences, however, are the similarities between past programs and present proposals. In fact, the arguments for apprenticeship sound nearly identical to the ones that fueled the movement for vocational education in the 1910s and 1920s and that also generated interest in career education just twenty years ago.5

One common argument linking the advocates of apprenticeship with earlier vocational reformers is that the schools are poorly suited to the economic needs of those headed for non-professional occupations. To early vocational reformers this meant that the schools were overly “bookish” and did not do enough to prepare young people for manual jobs in industry. To proponents of apprenticeship today this means that high schools are focused chiefly on college preparation even though one-half of each graduating class goes directly to work. But both share the belief that the schools are failing to meet the needs of many of their students because they are not teaching them the skills and attitudes they must have to succeed in the labor market as well as in their everyday lives once they leave school.

This argument is closely tied to a second theme that apprenticeship shares with earlier vocational programs. This is the argument that many students are not suited to academic work but are receptive to applied learning. Early vocational reformers labeled these youth “hand-minded” or “finger-minded” as opposed to those who could work with ideas, and argued that vocational education would make school more relevant to them. By contrast, reformers today contend that work-based education is a valuable educational strategy for a wide range of students. Some argue that even the best students suffer when learning is confined entirely to books.6 More often, however, the assumption is made, today as in the past, that programs which connect students to the world of work are particularly well suited to those they say are “school-weary” and bored by abstract theorizing, but would be interested in learning skills if they were linked to practical vocational activities.

A third theme tying traditional vocational education to apprenticeship attributes the labor market problems of these young people to the absence of any institutional mechanisms linking school and work. One of the most frequently cited arguments for apprenticeship, for example, is that non-college-bound students are left to sink or swim on their own without any advice or job-placement service. Consequently, it is argued, those entering the labor market after high school often spend five or six years “floundering” in dead-end, low-wage youth jobs that offer few opportunities to learn skills and no realistic prospects for advancement. This concern, too, was shared by earlier advocates of vocational education.

Much like the supporters of apprenticeship today, they also worried that young workers who left high school frequently wound up in dead-end jobs characterized by low wages and high turnover, and contended that by rationalizing the transition from school to work, vocational education (in coordination with vocational guidance) would end aimless drifting from one occupation to another and help young people begin their working lives with purpose, preparation, and insight.

Finally, interest in both vocational education and apprenticeship has been spurred by the belief that a job-based system of education would make the economy more competitive in international markets, and both have pointed to the example of Germany to support their claim. Indeed, those reformers today who are enamored with the German apprenticeship system sound an awful lot like the advocates of vocational education at the turn of the century who argued that Germany’s rise to international economic prominence was due to its system of technical education, and warned that the United States must follow the German educational example or risk being left behind in the battle for worldwide economic supremacy.

That these arguments for apprenticeship bear a striking resemblance to those once used to justify the establishment of vocational education does not of course mean that apprenticeship will necessarily repeat the failures of earlier vocational education programs. Supporters emphasize that since apprenticeship minimizes formal classroom instruction in favor of on-the-job instruction, students will be taught the skills that employers actually look for when hiring new workers, and thus will be much more employable than vocational education graduates have been. But given the similarities between past and present, the meager accomplishments of vocational education suggest that the hopes for apprenticeship are unlikely to be realized. Rather, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that much like the vocational programs that have preceded it, the arguments for apprenticeship are based on flawed assumptions about the nature of the youth labor market and the connections between school and work, as well as upon unsettling assumptions about the purposes of public education.

Apprenticeship and the Youth Labor Market

The arguments for apprenticeship are premised on two assumptions about the problems non-college bound high school graduates face when they enter the labor market. One is that the difficulties young people experience early in their work careers are damaging to their long-term economic prospects and contribute to a good deal of their anti-social behavior. The other is that many of these problems can be ameliorated by new institutional arrangements that help young people make a smoother transition from school to work.

Both of these assumptions are highly problematic, though neither of them is entirely unfounded.

To begin with, although many young people spend their initial few years after high school in unskilled, poorly paid jobs in what economists call the secondary labor market, there is little evidence that these early experiences necessarily lead to serious economic difficulties later on. Rather, as young people get older, many move out of these secondary labor market jobs into better paying, more stable employment in the preferred, or what is often referred to as the primary, sector of the economy. In fact, while those concerned over the transition from school to work have tended to view youth unemployment and job hopping as “pathological,” since the 1930s most studies of the youth labor market have concluded that for the majority of young people this period in their work career is a temporary one and that many eventually “settle down into permanent employment.”7

This pattern of employment is partly a reflection of the maturation process. Many of the young men interviewed by the economist Paul Osterman in his study of the youth labor market, for example, were initially more interested in short-term jobs to get money for recreation or buying a car than in stable employment. Only as they matured and began to think more about assuming adult responsibilities did they develop an understanding that a steady job was desirable and become more attached to the labor force and committed to looking for better paying, more stable employment.8

It would be wrong to attribute the characteristics of the youth labor market chiefly to youthful instability, however. As Osterman and several others have pointed out, more important is the structure of the labor market and the nature of the demand for labor. Put simply, many young people work in secondary labor market jobs after high school not because they are uninterested in more stable, better paying work but because most employers are not interested in hiring young workers for jobs with better compensation and opportunities for advancement. For these jobs, employers generally prefer to hire slightly older workers who they believe are more reliable and responsible and thus a better risk for investment in training and promotion. This benefits workers in their mid-twenties by enhancing their opportunities for more financially remunerative and secure employment, but it also means that most students just out of high school are confined to less desirable jobs in the secondary labor market (jobs that pay low wages and offer little security and that provide few rewards for stable work behavior), at least until they grow older.9

These structures and practices have proven remarkably stable, despite past efforts to change them. During the 1970s, for example, the Youth Entitlement Demonstration Program tried to get students to stay in high school by guaranteeing them jobs. But the program could not get many employers to participate. In fact, a survey of employers in the demonstration area revealed that less than one-fifth were willing to take part even if the government subsidized the entire wage of those hired.

Why these employers were so unenthusiastic about this program is unclear. Most labor market economists have assumed that wage subsidies for young workers would make them more attractive to employers and improve their position in the job queue. But apparently most believed, as Thomas Bailey has recently suggested, that “these young workers would not contribute enough to justify the effort needed to supervise them” whether or not someone else paid their wages.10

At first glance, employers in many European countries seem to be considerably less resistant to hiring young workers. As supporters of apprenticeship point out, German employers are much more willing to accept responsibility for training young workers and for helping them enter the labor market. Yet, even in Germany, where there is a widespread national commitment to the apprenticeship system, many employers remain reluctant to hire youth for “career ladder jobs,” and only a minority participate in the apprenticeship program. In 1980, only about 12% to 13% of large industrial and commercial firms trained apprentices. More small artisan firms took on apprentices (about 40%). But these smaller firms train many more apprentices than they can hire (in 1980 they employed only 17% of the workforce but trained about 40% of all apprentices), and many youth are forced to leave these firms within a year of completing their training. More critical observers of the German system contend that these employers participate chiefly because they see the apprenticeship system as a source of low-wage labor, hardly a better prospect than many young workers in this country now face in the youth labor market before they are able to move into more secure and financially rewarding employment.11

That the majority of American youth eventually make this transition does not mean that it is trouble free or that they might not benefit if employers changed their hiring practices. For some young people, teenage unemployment and under-employment undoubtedly means financial hardship for themselves and their families. Moreover, long spells of teenage unemployment do appear to have an adverse affect on future wages.12 But given the evidence that employers do not readily offer adult jobs to teenagers and that dead-end youth work does not inevitably portend future economic problems for many youth, much of the policy focus on smoothing the transition from school to work for high school graduates not only seems “doomed to remain . . . at the mercy of individual enthusiasts”13 but also seems somewhat misplaced. The chief focus of public policy should be on generating enough employment for those youth who are having unusual difficulty making the transition to adult employment in the preferred sectors of the labor market — especially the disproportionate numbers of minority youth, particularly young African Americans, who are experiencing greater and greater difficulty both finding work and holding any stable, better-paying jobs at all.

Indeed, whatever significance is accorded to the problems white youth face in the secondary labor market, there is no disputing the obstacles young African Americans encounter in finding and holding work even as they get older. Not only are Black unemployment rates more than double the rates for similarly educated white youth.

But over the last two decades the labor force participation rate for young African Americans — especially for young African-American males — has worsened considerably, both absolutely and relative to their white peers. Whereas in the 1950s Black and white men ages 18 to 24 not in school participated in the labor market at roughly the same rate (about 90%), in 1983, only 72% of 18 to 24-year-old African-American males not in school were in the labor force, compared to 89% for whites. In short, although many African-American youth also develop greater attachment to the labor force as they get older, today they are much more likely than in the past or in comparison to whites to have stopped looking for work and dropped out of the labor market altogether. But whether the barriers young African Americans face in the labor market can be overcome mainly by improving the institutional linkages between school and work is questionable.14

Race, Apprenticeship, and the Transition to Work

Although advocates of apprenticeship believe that linking education more closely to the workplace will benefit a variety of students, one of their chief selling points is that it will be especially beneficial for low-income, minority youth, particularly Black youth living in inner cities. This is partly because they believe that apprenticeship will link effort in the classroom with rewards in the workplace and thereby give minority students greater incentive to study and achieve in school. In addition, they argue that job-based education programs like apprenticeship will help minority youth improve their prospects in the labor market not only by equipping them with vocational skills but even more important by providing them with access to the kinds of employment opportunities they now lack because they are excluded from the informal networks necessary to obtain jobs and move into meaningful careers.15

Although these arguments have merit, the employment difficulties facing young minority workers are more deeply rooted than any of them assume. First, a large body of popular and scholarly literature supports the notion that lack of skills is a major problem for many minority youth. But skills or the lack of them do not seem to be the primary consideration for many employers when they hire young workers, even for jobs in the primary labor market. In Osterman’s study, for example, the majority of young workers in primary jobs did not know how to do their job when they were first hired, but were trained by their employer.16 This suggests that while apprenticeship might help young minority workers build skills, it is unlikely that raising their levels of “human capital” will dramatically improve their job prospects.

What apprenticeship might do is teach attention to detail, work-discipline, and other work-readiness behaviors that employers believe minority youth lack. This implies, however, that the chief value of the system is “socialization, not skill building.”17

Much recent research also supports the argument that most jobs — both in the primary and secondary labor market — are found through personal contacts.

Osterman’s study of the youth labor market points out, for instance, that youth do not search for work in an “impersonal labor market” but “move through channels already traveled by people they know.” In secondary jobs, friends are the most frequent source of referral, while parents and relatives are more helpful in finding jobs in the primary market. This makes sense since secondary jobs are more likely to be in small retail stores which employ youth from the local neighborhood or in bigger firms which have large numbers of minimum-wage jobs and are known to hire young workers for unskilled work. By contrast, primary firms are more interested in stability, and employers believe that parents are more likely than friends to be a reliable means of control.18

For two reasons, this structure of employment undoubtedly hurts young African Americans seeking work. One is that they are more likely than whites to live in inner-city neighborhoods where there has been a substantial loss of the kinds of small businesses and industries that typically provide employment opportunities for young workers. The other is that even though the occupational distribution of African Americans has improved considerably since World War II and become more similar to that of whites, African Americans continue to be underrepresented in the most desirable sectors of the labor market. As a result, young Blacks have less access to the informal job networks that help white youth find jobs and that are necessary for securing employment not only in the secondary market but in the primary labor market as well.19

A formal apprenticeship system will not eliminate the importance of friends and relatives in finding jobs. But by institutionalizing entry to the workplace, it might help compensate for this lack of informal job networks in the Black community and thus help young African Americans find better paying, more secure employment. Indeed, because African Americans historically have had less access to informal job networks, they have been more dependent than whites on formal institutions such as schools and employment bureaus for finding work. Yet, because schools are isolated from the workplace and employment bureaus have become little more than job referral agencies for the welfare system, these institutions typically have not done a very good job in helping minority workers find employment.20

But the absence of job networks and inadequate socialization are not the only reasons many African-American youth have such a hard time entering the labor market and finding better paying, higher status jobs. At least two others are equally, if not more, important, though there does not seem to be much apprenticeship can do about them. One is the persistence of racial discrimination. Sometimes this is explicit. Many white employers and workers, for example, resist hiring people of color — especially Black men — to supervise whites. In other cases, employers equate race with characteristics that disqualify minority workers for employment, particularly in higher level positions. As the sociologists Joleen Kirschenmann and Kathryn Neckerman discovered in their interviews with employers in Chicago, many employers associate race with inner city schools, which in turn signifies poor education, inadequate work skills, and insufficient commitment to the work ethic. Either way, however, race compounds the employment problems facing minority youth, since it militates against hiring African Americans and other minority workers for entry level jobs or promoting them to more financially rewarding, higher status positions.21

Youth apprenticeship advocates contend that the relationship between skilled mentors and apprentices will help combat these discriminatory practices. Because apprenticeship is not a strictly private relationship, argues Stephen Hamilton, one of the foremost supporters of youth apprenticeship in the United States, the employer must assure that the apprentice has every opportunity to learn what is needed for certification as a skilled worker. But this hardly guarantees equal treatment on the job, as Hamilton himself acknowledges.

Nor does it guarantee equal access to the most desirable apprenticeships. On the contrary, Thomas Bailey reports that, in Germany, Turks and other recent immigrants, who occupy a similar position in the German labor market as African Americans and other minorities do in the United States, are not only underrepresented in the apprenticeship system; among those who do participate they are also concentrated in apprenticeships in those occupations that offer the least chance for promotion and that consistently have the highest unemployment rate among students who successfully complete their apprenticeships.22

Employment Policies

The other problem is the absence of a full employment policy. Because young African Americans and other minority youth are generally at the bottom of the hiring queue, tight labor markets substantially improve their employment prospects, both absolutely and relative to whites.23 Yet once inflation began to accelerate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, successive administrations have tried to control it chiefly by letting unemployment rise. The result has been devastating for young Blacks and other low-income minority youth, since they are the first fired and last hired when labor markets turn slack. Today unemployment has dropped to about 7% nationwide compared to 11% in the early 1980s, but policymakers remain convinced that lower unemployment rates would mean higher inflation, so they have avoided stimulating the economy to reduce unemployment any further even though this harms young Blacks looking for work.24

Full employment is, of course, hardly a panacea for racial inequality in the labor market. Expanding aggregate demand will not by itself increase the availability of “good” jobs. Nor will it necessarily prevent whites from trying to monopolize them by restricting African Americans and other people of color to the lower levels of the job hierarchy. This requires more affirmative policies that change the position of people of color in the labor queue and that intervene more directly in decisions about how to allocate workers to different jobs. But it is hard to see how policies such as apprenticeship can improve the employment prospects of those minority youth just entering the labor market without a commitment to continuous full employment as well.

The more liberal advocates of youth apprenticeship recognize some of these things, but they do not deal with them very forthrightly. Most notable in this respect is The Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. In its report, The Forgotten Half, the Commission acknowledges that the American economy does not have “enough full-time employment for all who want it” and that in many occupations wages are too low to “support decent living standards for American families.” Yet the Commission disclaims any interest in proposing policies to address “the overall economic situation” that “constrains young people’s opportunities.” Instead, the Commission members state, they have tried to look for policies such as apprenticeship that offer “points of leverage . . . to remedy an ailing economy’s effects.”

Unless these economic conditions are dealt with more directly, however, the evidence suggests that apprenticeship and the other educational policies the Commission has endorsed will do little by themselves to solve the employment difficulties facing young minority workers or any of the other economic problems — including the productivity of the economy — that the proponents of apprenticeship hope it will address.25

While concerns about the effects of work in the youth labor market and the employment problems of minority youth have created much of the interest in apprenticeship, interest in job-based education has also been fueled by a growing concern about the skill level of the American workforce. For some, this concern stems from their belief that shifts in the occupational structure have increased the skill requirements of jobs and require reforms in the educational system in order to overcome a critical skills shortage among American workers. Others question whether skill requirements have actually changed that much but contend that an apprenticeship system is needed in order to improve the skills of future workers so that employers can move to what they call a high productivity form of work organization. Either way, however, nearly all apprenticeship advocates maintain that by improving the skills of the workforce an apprenticeship system will help make the economy more productive and sustain its capacity to provide a high standard of living for most American citizens.

Like most of the rhetoric surrounding proposals for apprenticeship these concerns are badly overstated, though they are not entirely without substance. Although skill requirements are rising because of shifts in the occupational composition of jobs, for at least three reasons the overall effect of these changes on skill levels is likely to be modest. First, while the most highly skilled occupational groups are growing fastest and the growth rates of occupations such as computer programmer and electrical engineer are relatively high, because they begin from a small absolute base the total number of these jobs remains relatively small. Even by the year 2000 the importance of these occupations within the job structure as a whole will not be very large.26 Second, whereas occupational shifts increased job-skill levels between 1960 and 1990, the rate of these changes decreased each decade. Whether these trends will persist is not certain, but Lawrence Mishel and Ruy Teixeira, two researchers at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., estimate that future change rates will be about one-third to one-fourth the historical rate, hardly enough to support the notion that occupational changes will produce a dramatic increase in job-skill requirements. Finally, the trend toward more high skilled jobs and higher skill requirements has been partially offset by the growth of relatively low-skilled jobs in the service occupations. In fact, the growth of service jobs such as cooks, waiters, household workers, janitors, and security guards may actually retard the upgrading of skill levels in the economy as a whole, since their average skill rating is below the skill rating for the entire occupational structure, and they will contribute the largest number of jobs to total employment growth between 1984 and 2000.27

Erroneous Assumptions

Taken together, all of this suggests that it is erroneous to assume that skill requirements are escalating rapidly and that education must be extensively reformed just because high skill occupations and industries are growing faster than low skill ones. Shifts in the distribution of jobs, however, are not the only way that skill levels can rise. Substantial skill upgrading can also take place because of changes in the content of existing occupations. One of the most common arguments for apprenticeship and other plans for job-based education, for example, is that the use of computers and other new technologies in factories, stores, and offices has increased the complexity of tasks that once required little technical training or sophistication but now require a better trained workforce.28

Despite a considerable amount of research on the effects of technology on work requirements, it is difficult to assess this argument with certainty. Although technological innovation undoubtedly affects the content of work, its impact is seldom all in one direction. Rather, the effects vary from substantial increases to none at all to considerable skill downgrading (i.e. deskilling). Historical case studies suggest, for instance, that while new technologies have enhanced the skill levels of some jobs, they have also deskilled others, depending upon the type of job, industry, and firm, the form of technology, and the dimension of skill under consider-tion. Whatever the particular case, however, the implication for educational policy is that we should avoid special training programs which assume that technological change automatically upgrades the skill content of work.29

Ironically, this is especially the case for new information technologies like computers. As has often happened in the past with the introduction of other technological innovations, the growing use of computers at the workplace has generated considerable enthusiasm for new training programs to upgrade the skill levels of the labor force. But the effects of computers on the skill requirements of jobs suggest that the enthusiasm for such programs may be unwarranted. Although the introduction of computers has created some jobs, such as systems analyst and programmer, that require extensive computer-related training, several studies report that the use of computers has also created many relatively low-skill, data-processing jobs that require little technical training or special education. According to one study of computer use in small business, the majority of employers reported that basic skills and enthusiasm were “more important in learning to use computers than previous experience and technical training.”30

Regardless of the impact of changes in the distribution of occupations and of technological innovation on skill requirements, it is still possible that reforms like apprenticeship are necessary because the nation needs a more skilled workforce to compete economically. This is the argument made by the Report of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! Although the report favors a job-based educational system such as apprenticeship, it does not contend that occupational and technological changes have dramatically upgraded skill requirements and produced a skills shortage among American workers. On the contrary, it recommends that the nation change its approach to education and work because skill levels have not gone up enough to encourage American business to adopt the less bureaucratic, more flexible forms of work organization needed to increase productivity and keep the economy competitive.

On the face of it, this is a compelling argument. But it too is a questionable one. Most important, it assumes that the organization of work reflects the skill levels of the labor force. There is not much evidence, however, that the structure of jobs is determined principally by the capacities of the people who fill them. Because of the expansion of education, American workers today are more educated and arguably more skilled than they were fifty years ago, yet with the exception of some jobs in a few “best practice” firms in certain industries, jobs have not been substantially restructured to take advantage of this rise in educational and skill levels. On the contrary, the match between workers’ skills and the requirements of jobs is, in Kenneth Spenner’s words, “notoriously loose” and has given rise to as much concern about the phenomenon of “overeducation” — the fact that workers have more skills than are needed for the jobs they are assigned — as to fears that workers are insufficiently skilled to perform their jobs adequately.31 Rather than the skill levels of workers affecting the structure of work, the organization of work is shaped as much by public policy, the culture of the work environment, and the social context of worker-management relations.32

Other Policies Important

None of this denies that the adoption of new forms of work organization might increase productivity. Or that restructuring work so that workers interact with each other as part of a team and take responsibility for independently solving technical problems requires workers with considerable skill and training. According to several studies, in those firms that have adopted less hierarchical, more decentralized forms of work organization, jobs are more likely to require skills such as intellectual flexibility and problem solving capabilities that were seldom needed by many workers in the past.33 But such jobs are not now the standard in American industry and business. Nor will simply raising the human capital level of the labor force — whether through educational reforms like apprenticeship or other forms of job training— make them numerically dominant in the future. Equally if not more important are other policies that make it inconvenient for management to rely on bureaucratic, repetitious forms of labor.34

Indeed, one of the chief reasons that many European and Japanese companies have adopted new, less bureaucratic forms of work organization is not just because of the higher skill levels of their workers but because national full employment policies and public support for strong unions make it in their interest to do so. Historically, in Sweden, and to a lesser extent in Germany, for example, union pressure combined with national income policies and public commitments to full employment provide strong incentives for employers to improve productivity through investments in training and restructured forms of work. But discussion of such public policies is largely absent from the American debate, even though documents such as America’s Choice:High Skills or Low Wages! recognize their importance.35 Because unions in this country are weaker and our commitment to state intervention and public social provision is more limited, attention is focused instead almost exclusively on improving human capital levels through better integration of school and work.

Educational Reform, and the Economy

Although there is not much evidence that technological change has dramatically raised skill requirements or that improving the skills of the workforce will by itself make the economy more productive, it is difficult to dispute much of what the advocates of apprenticeship have to say about the shortcomings of American schools and their failure to prepare high school graduates for work. High schools today do not do a very good job engaging the majority of students in academic learning. Nor, except for those headed for liberal arts colleges, is there much relationship between what happens in the classroom and the jobs students get when they enter the labor market. One result is that many students have little incentive to study hard or achieve in school. Instead, they drop out or else simply put in seat time until they graduate.36

For these students, a job-based education program like apprenticeship does indeed seem to offer a much-needed alternative to the academic orientation of the high school curriculum. There is some evidence, for example, that those students bored with academic work find vocational classes more appealing.37 But despite its promise to make education more relevant and useful to non-college bound students, in practice it is not likely that apprenticeship will invigorate the traditional high school curriculum to accommodate either their economic needs or their diverse interests and learning styles. Rather, by channeling them into job-specific training, it seems more likely that apprenticeship will narrow their opportunities to acquire the kinds of general intellectual skills they need most both at work and in social life.

Advocates argue that apprenticeship will create a learning environment that provides for the development of both specific and general skills. But rather than broaden the character of the curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population, the introduction of work-oriented programs has functioned over the years to fragment the curriculum and deepen the division between college and non-college bound students. In fact, many of those who have studied the history of vocational education contend that it has done little to unify practical and academic education or eliminate the gap between those headed for work and those headed for college. Much more often, they say, vocational education has fostered a differentiated system of schooling, with low-income and minority boys channeled into industrial education programs, low-income and minority girls channeled into traditional female courses and occupations, and white middle-and upper-class students placed in college-oriented academic programs.38

Despite the pleas of apprenticeship advocates, there is little reason to think that youth apprenticeship will be much different. Although advocates stress that even the most academically capable students can benefit from practical job-based education and that apprenticeship graduates will be able to go on to college, most proposals for apprenticeship make it plain that the chief raison d’etre of the program is to serve working-class and minority students who they believe are not likely to pursue a baccalaureate degree. In their view, these students are not academically capable and have been poorly served by the current educational system but will benefit from a less academic, more vocationally oriented education.39

Indeed, some contend that this will actually make American education more democratic. They argue that making explicit provision for the non-college bound will promote more opportunity than the existing system which pretends to give access to the same education to every student but in reality provides many students with little useful training at all.40 If there is a case to be made for apprenticeship, however, it is not that it will equalize opportunities for the least advantaged. Although it comes cloaked in the rhetoric of concern for the “neglected majority” and the “forgotten half,” this approach to education and work will only add “another dimension of inequality” to an already unequal system.41

In the end, if there is a democratic approach to changing the relationship between education and work, it is not to subordinate education even further to vocational concerns, as apprenticeship ultimately proposes to do. Despite the claims of its advocates, this will not equalize educational opportunities or improve the economic prospects of poor and minority youth; it will only reproduce the inequities that apprenticeship claims to address. A more democratic alternative for a changing economy is to provide all students with the kinds of skills they need to develop fully and manage technological change.

This means offering them an education that will equip them not only with specific vocational skills but, in John Dewey’s words, with the “initiative, ingenuity, and executive capacity” they need to be “masters of their own industrial fate.”42

Such an education by itself is not sufficient, however. It is also necessary to develop policies around schooling and the economy that intervene more directly in labor markets rather than focus on schooling and training alone. Among other things, this requires policies to combat racial discrimination at work, a commitment to full employment and to macroeconomic and other pro-employment policies such as reducing the work week and changing the pattern of government expenditures that will help sustain it, and support for unionization as well as for experiments to improve the quality of work life such as works councils and worker participation in management.

This is the only way for policy to respond actively rather than reactively to the social and economic problems that apprenticeship hopes to solve and that have generated interest in job based plans for education in the first place.


  1. For a summary of the Clinton plan, see Lynn Olson, “Creating Apprenticeship System Will Be Tough, Advocates Admit,” Education Week 12 (March 3, 1993): 1, 29-30.
  2. William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Non-College Youth in America (Washington, D.C.: William T. Grant Foundation, 1988); Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!(Rochester, NY: National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990); Jobs for the Future, Youth Apprenticeship, American Style: A Strategy for Expanding School and Career Opportunities (Somerville, MA: Jobs for the Future, 1990); Robert Lerman and Hillard Pouncy, “The Compelling Case for Youth Apprenticeships,” The Public Interest 102 (Fall 1990): 62-77; Kit Lively, “Maine’s Month-Old Apprenticeships Show How a National Plan Might Work,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 39 (March 31,1993): A20-21, 23.
  3. In addition to the sources cited in note 2, also see Stephen Hamilton, “Apprenticeship as a Transition to Adulthood in West Germany,” American Journal of Education 95 (Fall 1987): 314-45; Robert Lerman, “Reversing the Poverty Cycle with Job-Based Education,” in Roberta Wollons, ed., Children at Risk in America: History, Concepts, and Public Policy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), pp. 230-58; Robert W. Glover and Ray Marshall, “Improving the School-To-Work Transition of American Adolescents,” Teachers College Record 94 (Spring 1993): 588-610.
  4. For summaries of these evaluations, see Harvey Kantor and David Tyack, eds., Work, Youth, and Schooling: Historical Perspectives on Vocational is min American Education (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982); Paul Osterman, Employment Futures: Reorganization, Dislocation, and Public Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), chp. 5; Alan Weisberg, “What Research Has to Say About Vocational Education and the High Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 64 (January 1983): 355-59; Beatrice Reubens, “Vocational Training for Allin High School?” in James O’Toole, ed., Work and the Quality of Life: Resource Papers for ‘Work in America’ (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), pp. 299-338.
  5. For a more detailed treatment of the arguments for vocational education, see Marvin Lazerson and W. Norton Grubb, American Education and Vocationalism: A Documentary History, 1870-1970 (New York: Teachers College Press, 1974), and Harvey Kantor, Learning to Earn: School, Work, and Vocational Reform in California, 1880-1930 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), esp. chp. 2. On the similarities between vocational education and career education, see W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, “Rally ‘Round the Workplace: Continuities and Fallacies in Career Education,” Harvard Educational Review 45 (November 1975): 451-74. This section is modeled on part of that essay.
  6. See, for example, Grant Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, TheForgottenHalf, p.40.
  7. W. Norton Grubb, “Preparing Youth for Work: The Dilemmas of Education and Training Programs,” in David Stern and Dorothy Eichorn, eds., Adolescence and Work: Influences of Social Structure, Labor Markets, and Culture (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989), pp. 27-28; Joseph Kett, “The Adolescence of Vocational Education,” in Harvey Kantor and David Tyack, eds., Work, Youth, and Schooling: Historical Perspectives on Vocationalism in American Education (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982, pp. 98-100.
  8. Paul Osterman, Getting Started: The Youth Labor Market (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), chp. 2.
  9. Osterman, Getting Started, chp. 2; Grubb, “Preparing Youth for Work,” esp. pp. 23-26; Peter B. Doeringer and Michael J. Piore, “Unemployment and the ‘dual labor market,’” The Public Interest 38 (Winter 1975): 67-79; W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, “Education and the Labor Market: Recycling the Youth Problem,” in Kantor and Tyack, eds., Work, Youth, and Schooling, pp.110-41.
  10. Thomas Bailey, “Can Youth Apprenticeship Thrive in the United States?” Educational Researcher 22 (April 1993): 6.
  11. Bailey, “Can Youth Apprenticeship Thrive?” p. 7; Osterman, Employment Futures, p. 112; Hamilton, “Apprenticeship as a Transition to Adulthood,” p. 336.
  12. David T. Ellwood, “Teenage Unemployment: Permanent Scars or Temporary Blemishes?” in Richard B. Freeman and David A. Wise, eds., The Youth Labor Market Problem: Its Nature, Causes and Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 349-90.
  13. Bailey, “Can Youth Apprenticeship Thrive?” p. 7.
  14. On racial differentials in the youth labor market and the deterioration of the labor market position of black youth, see Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff, “The Youth Labor Market Problem in the United States: An Overview,” in Freeman and Wise, eds., The Youth Labor Market Problem, pp. 35-74; Richard B. Freeman and Harry Holzer, eds., The Black Youth Employment Crisis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Harvey Kantor and Barbara Brenzel, “Urban Education and the ‘Truly Disadvantaged’: The Historical Roots of the Contemporary Crisis,” in Michael B. Katz, ed., The ‘Underclass’ Debate: Views From History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 366-402.
  15. See especially, Glover and Marshall, “Improving the School to Work Transition,” p. 593; Lerman, “Reversing the Poverty Cycle with Job-Based Education,” p. 248; Lerman and Pouncy, “Compelling Case for Youth Apprenticeships,” p. 72.
  16. Osterman, Getting Started, p. 33.
  17. Osterman, Employment Futures, p. 112.
  18. Osterman, Getting Started, chp. 2.
  19. On the deterioration of employment opportunities in the inner city, see William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Gary Orfield and Carol Ashkinaze, The Closing Door: Conservative Policy and Black Opportunity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). On the employment distribution of black and white workers, see Reynolds Farley, “The Common Destiny of Blacks and Whites: Observations about the Social and Economic Status of the Races,” in Herbert Hill and James E. Jones, Jr., eds., Race in America: The Struggle for Equality (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), pp. 197-233.
  20. On the historical importance of formal institutions for African Americans seeking work, see Walter Licht, Getting Work, Philadelphia, 1840-1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), chps. 2-4.
  21. Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn M. Neckerman, “‘We’d Love to Hire Them But. . .’: The Meaning of Race for Employers,” in Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, The Urban Underclass (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1992), pp. 203-24. On the persistence of racial discrimination in the labor market and the reluctance of employers to hire blacks to supervise whites, ee Norman Fainstein, “The Underclass/Mismatch Hypothesis as an Explanation for Black Economic Deprivation,” Politics and Society 15 (1986/87): 403-51; Raymond Franklin, Shadows of Race and Class (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), chp. 4.
  22. Stephen Hamilton, “Prospects for an American-Style Youth Apprenticeship System,” Educational Researcher 22 (April 1993): 13-15; Bailey, “Can Youth Apprenticeship Thrive?” pp. 8-9.
  23. On the benefits of full employment for young minority workers, see Richard B. Freeman, “Employment and Earnings of Disadvantaged Young Men in a Labor Shortage Economy,” and Paul Osterman, “Gains From Growth? The Impact of Full Employment on Poverty in Boston,” both in Jencks and Peterson eds., The Urban Underclass, pp. 103-21, 122-34; Christopher Jencks, Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 124-25; and, Osterman, Getting Started, chp. 7.
  24. Many conservative and some liberal economists argue that high unemployment is the necessary price we must pay to prevent inflation. But the level of inflation and unemployment is not dictated solely by the laws of the market. As the sociologists Seymour Bellin and S. M. Miller have pointed out, it also reflects what government is willing to do to control prices and promote employment. The argument that little can be done to create jobs and that prices can be kept under control only by letting unemployment rise is premised on the belief that the government should not intervene actively in the market. However, more interventionist policies such as limiting price increases in industries that are rapidly raising their prices, subsidizing the cost of producing vital commodities and services, and limiting pay increases in high wage industries and occupations can also reduce inflationary pressures, while other measures such as shortening the work week and shifting government spending away from military research and development (which produces fewer jobs than spending for civilian purposes) can help expand employment. See Seymour S. Bellin and S. M. Miller, “The Split Society,” in Kai Erikson and Steven Peter Vallas, eds., The Nature of Work: Sociological Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 173-91.
  25. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, The Forgotten Half, p. 30.
  26. For instance, Henry Levin and Russell Rumberger report that between 1982 and 1995, computer systems analyst, computer programmer, and electrical engineer, three of the fast growing occupations, have estimated growth rates of 65%. Yet each occupation will generate less that 100,000 jobs during this period. By contrast, custodians, cashiers, and sales clerks, three traditional occupations, will grow relatively slowly compared to the three technical occupations, but will still generate more than 600,000 jobs. See, Henry Levin and Russell Rumberger, “Educational Requirements for New Technologies: Visions, Possibilities and Current Realities,” Educational Policy 1 (1987): 339.
  27. See Lawrence Mishel and Ruy A. Teixeira, The Myth of the Coming Labor Shortage: Jobs, Skills, and Incomes of America’s Workforce 2000 (Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 1991), pp. 13-22; David R. Howell and Edward N. Wolff, “Trends in the Growth and Distribution of Skills in the U. S. Workplace, 1960-1985,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 44 (April 1991): 486-502; Bill J. Johnston, “The Transformation of Work and Educational Reform Policy,” American Educational Research Journal 30 (Spring 1993): 39-65.
  28. See, for example, Glover and Marshall, “Improving the School-to-Work Transition,” pp. 589-92.
  29. For reviews of the research on the effects of technological innovation on skill requirements, see Kenneth I. Spenner, “Technological Change, Skill Requirements, and Education: The Case for Uncertainty,” in R. M. Cyert and D.C. Mowery, eds., The Impact of Technological Change on Employment and Economic Growth (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1988), pp. 131-84; Kenneth I. Spenner, “The Upgrading and Downgrading of Occupations: Issues, Evidence, and Implications for Education,” Review of Educational Research 55(Summer 1985): 125-54; Russell Rumberger, “The Potential Impact of Technology on the Skill Requirements of Future Jobs,” in Gerald Burke and Russell Rumberger, eds., The Future Impact of Technology on Work and Education (London: Falmer, 1987), chp. 5; Levin and Rumberger, “Educational Requirements for New Technologies.”
  30. Levin and Rumberger, “Educational Requirements for New Technologies,” p. 344. On the mixed effects of computers and other technological innovations on work, also see Spenner, “Technological Change, Skill Requirements and Education,” pp. 131-84; Paul Attewell, “The Deskilling Controversy,” Work and Occupations 14 (August 1987): 323-46; Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (New York: Basic Books, 1984).
  31. Spenner, “Technological Change, Skill Requirements, and Education,” p. 137. On overeducation and the mismatch between workers with given skills and jobs with given skill requirements, see Iver Berg, Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery (New York: Praeger, 1970).
  32. Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine; Spenner, “Technological Change, Skill Requirements, and Education”; Levin and Rumberger, “Educational Requirements for New Technologies.”
  33. Spenner, “Technological Change, Skill Requirements, and Education,” p. 171; Mishel and Teixeira, Coming Labor Shortage,p. 23.
  34. Mishel and Teixeira, Coming Labor Shortage, pp. 23, 40; Johnston, “The Transformation of Work,” p. 65.
  35. Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America’s Choice, pp. 61-64; Osterman, Employment Futures, chp. 6.
  36. This is the message of several recent reports on the American high school. See especially Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen, The Shopping Mall High School(Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1985); John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).
  37. Grant Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, The Forgotten Half, p. 50; Lerman, “Reversing the Poverty Cycle,” p. 240.
  38. Lazerson and Grubb, American Education and Vocationalism, introduction; Grubb and Lazerson, “Rally ‘Round the Workplace,” pp. 461-62; Paul Violas, The Training of the Urban Working Class: A History of Twentieth Century Urban Education (Chicago: Rand-McNally College Publishing, 1978), chps. 6-7; Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America (New York: Basic Books, 1976).
  39. See especially Lerman, “Reversing the Poverty Cycle” in Wollons, ed., Children at Risk in America, pp. 230-58; Lerman and Pouncy, “ Compelling Case for Youth Apprenticeship.” The experience of German and Turkish youth in German secondary schools bears out the connection between apprenticeship and educational stratification. The German secondary system has three levels of schooling. The highest level is focused on academic preparation for higher education; the middle level includes both college and vocational preparation; the lowest level is limited predominantly to preparation for manual occupations. In the mid-1980s, only 28% of Turkish youth but 65% of German youth were enrolled in the two highest levels. See Bailey, “Can Youth Apprenticeship Thrive?” p. 8; Hamilton, “Apprenticeship as a Transition to Adulthood,” pp. 318-321, 333.
  40. Hamilton, “Apprenticeship as a Transition to Adulthood,” pp. 333-34. Lerman and Pouncy also take this position in “Compelling Case for Youth Apprenticeship,” p. 72.
  41. Bailey, “Can Youth Apprenticeship Thrive?” p. 9.
  42. John Dewey, “Education vs. Trade-Training,” The New Republic 3 (May 15, 1915): 42.
  43. The same point is made by Norton Grubb in “Preparing Youth for Work,” in Stern and Eichorn, eds., Adolescence and Work, p. 41. Also see, Bellin and Miller, “Split Society,” in Erikson and Vallas, eds., Nature of Work, pp. 183-88.

Harvey Kantor is an associate professor at the University of Utah who specializes in educational history and policy.