The Single Best Thing Europe Does for its Kids…and Why the US should Pay Attention

As we approach college acceptance season, I wanted to bring a European practice for college-aged students that I admire to your attention. It’s something the United State really needs to learn from.

Germany usually stands out as the perfect country for it. With lower youth unemployment and almost non-existent student loan debt, German 18-24-year-olds are wealthier and much better positioned for long-term success than children here in the USA. 

The reason? Germany, like Switzerland and other European countries, can thank its robust apprenticeship programs. In Germany, almost 60% of young people participate in apprenticeships in fields as diverse as banking and hospitality. In the U.S. almost no one does.

Here’s why we should be paying attention to apprenticeships. 

What is an apprenticeship?

To start with the basics, an apprenticeship is an “earn-while-you-learn” arrangement with a company, union, or government to provide hands-on training in an active work environment, mixed with classroom instruction provided at a school. Practice on the job quickly reinforces the theories learned at school. Thus, apprentices see how the information they are learning in the classroom is put to use in the real world.

Aside from practical skills, apprenticeship programs provide numerous other benefits to the apprentices going through the program. For instance, they learn work habits, responsibility, and industry culture, earn money earlier than their counterparts (a serious benefit) and avoid significant student-loan debt. The firms that host apprentices benefit from expanding their labor pool and gaining insight into the suitability of candidates before making hiring decisions. In addition, both parties prosper from training that encourages practical problem solving over rote memorization.

The United States actually has a rich history of using apprenticeships. Unfortunately, they have gotten less popular in the past few decades. Why? Thank our national obsession with the idea that every kid needs to go to an expensive university and our fear that choosing careers at a young age is risky. Today, not even 5% of our youth train as apprentices (and almost all are in the construction trades) compared to the previously mentioned 60% of German youth. That’s a huge gap!

Can the U.S. do it?

In the United States, we tend to coalesce around a broad definition of education. In general, we believe that education should prepare people for “life” and rebel against anything with a narrow focus. Most assume that job training doesn’t fit in this context. However, well-rounded education is not incompatible with an apprenticeship. Rather, what we need is an emphasis on problem-solving, with less dedication to the idea of academic achievement. 

Fortunately, the apprenticeship model already has bipartisan political support. President Obama dedicated millions of dollars to build more apprenticeship opportunities, and President Trump has largely followed on that path. 

What’s required now is to broaden the base of possible apprenticeships from construction to many other industries, particularly high-tech fields. In a rapidly changing world, with extremely specific required skills (and as economists worry about the threat of unemployment brought on by automation and AI), apprenticeships ensure that no jobs will go unfilled and that our children are equipped to handle the work of the future – while getting handsomely compensated for it.

Various models are already being tested in the U.S. In fact, we can thank our German friends for many of the investments over the last few years. The German embassy has been promoting apprenticeship programs and German companies are lifting a heavy load, as well. For instance, Siemens, the industrial manufacturer, already has apprenticeship programs in Alabama, North Carolina, California, and Georgia and plans to expand to new locations.

What does the future look like?

No one should expect every American student to participate in apprenticeships within 5 years, nor would even be ideal. A 4-year degree will and should remain the ideal for many. However, the growth of the apprenticeship model within the United States would benefit all of us. Particularly, it would give youth for whom a 4-year degree isn’t the right option a path to a well-paying career.

 The burden will fall to schools, parents, and students to investigate all opportunities and find the path that fits them.

What do you think? Are apprenticeships a model we should be giving more attention to?