This week, President Trump is expected to make the expansion of apprenticeship programs the centerpiece of his administration’s labor policy. The president will visit a technical school in Wisconsin on Tuesday and give a policy speech at the Labor Department on Wednesday that will flesh out his proposal. But, please, hold “The Apprentice” jokes, if you can.
The apprentice model, in which younger workers gain specialized skills by learning directly from veterans in a given trade through hands-on experience, has a long and venerable history in America—not just on Trump’s erstwhile reality TV show—and it’s one that we need now more than ever.
Currently there are millions of unfilled jobs for skilled workers across the country at a time when the labor force participation rate—the share of Americans actually working or looking for a job—is hovering at a four-decade low. That alone makes expansion of apprenticeship programs a sound policy. Details of Trump’s plan aren’t out yet, but the administration reportedly likes the existing programs because they’re funded largely by companies that do the training or by labor unions, and could be expanded without a major increase in federal spending.
Such programs also serve what should be a larger national goal: reducing the number of young people seeking degrees at four-year colleges. For too long, Americans have prized college education as the sole pathway to a respectable middle-class life. Meanwhile, trade and vocational schools have gained a kind of stigma as the sort of places blue-collar and working-class types turn to as a last resort before becoming hooked on welfare and opioids.
That’s nonsense. Simply put, not everyone has to go to college for four years to have a productive, fulfilling career or gain entry to the middle class. For many people, especially working-class Americans in rural and semi-rural areas, college isn’t a realistic option but trade or vocational school is. Beyond that, keeping more of America’s youth out of our hopelessly politicized institutions of higher learning, and putting them to work as skilled laborers, might do the country real and lasting good.
For Many, Apprenticeships Are a Better Deal Than College
If Trump wants to reinvigorate the middle class, supporting vocational and apprenticeship programs should be a priority, just as it was for the Obama administration. With unemployment last month hovering around 4.3 percent, its lowest since 2001, businesses have been complaining they can’t find workers with the requisite skills to fill vacancies, even as the number of apprentices and programs has increased in recent years.
There are myriad reasons for this scarcity of workers. Partly to blame is the aforementioned stigma of vocational and trade schools, but it’s also partly because we’ve come to believe that if you want a decent job you need to have a bachelor’s degree, even if it’s in, say, bowling management or puppetry.
Hence, a higher education glut. Last year, some 13 million Americans were enrolled in four-year colleges versus only about a half-million apprentices in training. One of the big differences between the two groups, besides what they’re learning, is the amount of debt they’re carrying. The average college graduate in 2016 now carries more than $30,000 in student loans—and that’s a conservative estimate.
By contrast, most apprenticeship programs are sponsored by industries that want to hire skilled workers. They need these workers so much they’re willing to pay them while they’re learning the skills of the trade, and the vast majority have a job waiting for them—with an average salary of $60,000—when they complete their apprenticeship.
The Cultural Case For Questioning College for All
Beyond the economic arguments for more apprentices and fewer undergrads, there’s also a compelling cultural one. In case you haven’t noticed, many of our colleges and universities have become little more than centers for left-wing political indoctrination while actual education has become a secondary priority. Students do less academic work, have more free time on their hands, and paradoxically get more A grades than their parents’ generation did.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonpartisan higher-education organization that publishes data on the quality of America’s colleges and universities, publishes an annual survey of college curricula titled, “What Will They Learn?” Its 2015 survey found that basic subjects like U.S. government, American history, literature, mathematics, and economics “have become mere options on far too many campuses.” As a result, students have “great gaps in their knowledge,” in part because so few schools have required courses in fundamental subject areas like U.S. history or government.
The transformation of American higher education into a massive political enterprise focused on churning out progressive activists has been decades in the making. But in recent years it’s picked up steam. One can see it in the spate of campus protests every time a conservative is invited to speak, or the “occupation” of college buildings by minority student groups demanding administrators cater to their specific curricular and administrative whims.
Most recently, students at Evergreen State College in Washington have been freaking out ever since a white biology professor had the temerity to object to a college-sponsored “Day of Absence,” when white people were supposed to stay home. The entire affair is important to understand what’s happening in American higher education.
The Evergreen tradition, dating from the 1970s, held that on the Day of Absence, ethnic-minority students, professors, and staff would stay home to remind the white majority how essential minorities are to campus life. But this year, the school’s director of the First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services office (which is a real thing at Evergreen) announced that the Day of Absence, set for April 14, would be inverted: white people would be “encouraged” to stay off campus while minority students and faculty held “community-building” workshops on school grounds.
When professor Bret Weinstein objected in a private email to the administrator that the reformulated Day of Absence amounted to a “show of force, an act of oppression in and of itself,” and students found out about his objections, all hell broke loose. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen describes the ensuing “student protests”:
At Evergreen State that has actually meant: invading a professor’s class to taunt him with charges of racism; occupying the library and the college president’s office while the campus police, ordered to stand down, barricade themselves in their headquarters; delivering F-bombs, derision, and assorted demands—firing the police chief, confiscating the guns of the rest of the police, setting up mandatory race-oriented ‘cultural competency’ training for the faculty, excusing the protesters from their end-of-term assignments, and providing free gumbo for a radical potluck—to the cornered president, George Bridges; and creating such a threatening atmosphere for the professor in question, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein (another target of the firing demands), that he had to hold his class on May 25 in a public park in downtown Olympia. If a photo posted on Instagram is to be taken at face value, it has also meant wielding baseball bats and posing ominously on the balconies of student apartments.
Details about what the Trump administration has in mind for apprenticeships are still scant, but expanding these programs, shifting more students into them and away from four-year colleges, is a sound policy goal. The last thing the country needs right now are more twenty-somethings with bachelor degrees from left-leaning schools who don’t know who won the Civil War or which country America defeated to gain its independence. To borrow a line from Sen. Marco Rubio, we need more plumbers and fewer philosophers—or at least fewer philosophy students.