Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Time for apprenticeships?

Alex Tabarrok is a professor of economics; he also blogs at Marginal Revolution. A recent article of his in The Chronicle of Higher Education (thanks to @NCharles) critiques the US' culture of "college for everyone"; he contrasts this with Europe unfavorably [I'll note that I'm glossing over Tabarrok's odd STEM pseudo-shortage comments earlier in the article.] :
...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. 
In the United States, "vocational" programs are often thought of as programs for at-risk students, but that's because they are taught in high schools with little connection to real workplaces. European programs are typically rigorous because the training is paid for by employers who consider apprentices an important part of their current and future work force. Apprentices are therefore given high-skill technical training that combines theory with practice—and the students are paid! Moreover, instead of isolating teenagers in their own counterculture, apprentice programs introduce teenagers to the adult world and the skills, attitudes, and practices that make for a successful career.
I don't really know very much about the apprenticeship programs in Europe. I think it makes a great deal of sense to make job training happen earlier in the educational process, as opposed to later. That said, I suspect that the US doesn't have the levels of cooperation between educational institutions and industry to make this happen. I also suspect that US corporations don't (believe they?) have the levels of financial security to make the 5+ year commitment to make this sort of program happen.

My last question is this: a educational credential is portable, but are apprenticeship credentials portable between companies? Readers, what's your experience with apprenticeships?


  1. When I first started out in pharma, as a summer student in the early 90's, this was more common. One of the chemists who trained me had come from a community college program that worked closely with industry. Then, when she started on the job, her supervisor worked with her one-on-one during a training period, for about six months to a year. By the time I came in as a summer intern, she had been there several years and was working as a full scientist, probably at an MS level, even though she only had an associates degree. As I continued in my career, I saw those types of jobs disappear as companies were less willing to train employees and instead started requiring higher degrees instead.

  2. Unstable IsotopeMarch 6, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    I think in the US, going to college has replaced vocational education and apprenticeships mostly. Some apprentice positions are still around for skilled trades like plumber, electrician, etc. I think one problem with apprenticeships is that it pretty much ties you to one company and US companies don't really think like that anymore. I guess they find it more profitable to hire more well-rounded educated individuals and train them on the job. Some of this, I think, comes from the shift in power from employee to employer over the last 30 or so years.

  3. As the sole worker in my family, I have had to make the choice between A) saving for retirement, B) saving for college for my two kids or some linear combination of A and B. People cringe when I tell them that I am saving exclusively for retirement because there is no way I can keep up with the rising cost of tuition and I am not going to require my children to go to college. Even with a PhD, I cannot say that college was very useful for me. I think that if I was given the choice, I would have gone to trade school. Unfortunately, the US has this antiquated myopic idea that college = success.

  4. I don't have any specific experience, but I have always thought that having apprenticeship would be a good idea. After all, many basic lab rats don't need 90% of their 4 year degree. The techs that prove themselves should get a scholarship offer from a company to get a 4 year degree, at which point they enter into the research sector with a job already promised.

    I feel like that should be the standard way of going about getting a chem job.

  5. I think apprenticeship are very good for some and also takes pressure off colleges and universities. In Canada (half way between the US and British system) there are lots of trades from community colleges as well as apprenticeships in things like plumbing, construction, and areas like day care and elderly care (with certification). These are accepted throughout Canada at least (although quebec is a bit fussy).

    For other areas (chemical, pharm and technical areas) I think it has a lot to do with tradition. In Holland (my post doc place) the Physics dept in Leiden had a world class machine shop that had a long tradition and history.

    In Canada there are programs supported by the government: for example in any area where a company does basic research for a product (R&D) the government pays half the salaries. In addition, there are many tax advantages for employers who set up training (In quebec I think there is a law that a percentage of profits (5%?) must be devoted to training.), and other incentives to help employers to offer apprenticeship.

  6. Regarding the USA, I just found the following link which sheds light on some of the thinking:


  7. The US auto industry utilized the apprenticeship path heavily in its heyday. Electricians, plumbers still do.

    The problem would still remain that US workers would still be competing against much cheaper labor outside the US. PhD/college degree/apprenticeships are still going to be fairly highly compensated positions which will struggle to compete with factories in China where 20,000 people live in dorms, make very little money and can be mobilized to work in the middle of the night if their bosses need them.

    Until US companies can see the value in keeping jobs here in the US, and hence accept higher labor costs, it really doesn't matter. I could see them putting apprenticeship programs in place, just not in the US.

  8. “Apprentices are therefore given high-skill technical training that combines theory with practice—and the students are paid!”--- Yes, this is what’s great about taking up apprenticeship programs. A lot of companies really give value to their apprentices because they are part of their workforce and contribution greatly to the organization. And, employers always need new and high quality employees. These individuals can become the company’s future employees and might even play a big role for them in the future.

  9. I worked as a mechanic and a machinist for 8 years before I went to school to study chemistry. My previous experience, which also included a fair bit of electronics, made me unstoppable as a synthetic organic chemist. The problems I solved that others gave up on, the equipment I fabricated, the systems I put together from junk that made a lab of 5 produce like 20, it went on and on.
    Science needs people with a combination of skills and experience. So many chemistry only types are lousy at practical aspects of chemistry. Chemistry is hard work, blood sweat and tears, working with your hands, as much as it is a white board pissing contest. Given all the databases available today, who needs to even memorize name reactions?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20