The word apprentice has a very specific connotation: blacksmiths, carpenters, plumbers and the like. We think of apprenticeships as being the first steps on the path toward a few very specific careers.
And yet, modern apprenticeships looks almost nothing like the ones we imagine. Though blue-collar apprenticeships are still most common, for several years now, white-collar apprenticeships have been on the rise. But still, our stereotype has not changed.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education Friday reported that there are just 500,000 apprentices in the entire United States — a number that has hardly grown, despite a number of concentrated efforts over the past several years to do so. In contrast, the United States enrolls 17 million college students. Though apprenticeships are praised as being a means through which young people can essentially be paid and educated at the same time, escaping the burdens of student loans and debt — they simply don’t compete with more traditional career paths.
There are many fields in which apprenticeships make just as much sense as college, if not more. Insurance agents, graphic designers and health-information technicians today are largely college graduates, although in many cases, people could do the same kind of work having had a hands-on apprenticeship for experience rather than a four-year college education. It might even serve them better.
Our culture in the United States prioritizes college for young people above all else. Even so much as taking a gap year comes with a certain stigma attached to it. It’s just not done. And apprenticeships have an even worse stigma. We don’t see it as the kind of thing smart, driven students pursue.
The drawback to apprenticeships isn’t just that they are perceived as being for lower achieving students, though. In our current system, they really are for lower achieving students. By nature, apprenticeships educate young people for low and mid-level jobs. They’re not designed with opportunities for advancement in mind, especially when people do them in place of higher education.
But apprenticeships and college don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Offering these programs aimed at people as young as high schoolers could achieve a lot. Rather than waiting for students to get several years into college to test out the waters in their field of choice by getting internships and taking more major-specific classes, we should be encouraging students to do things the other way around, and work apprenticeships while they are young, before they have committed themselves to getting a degree in a specific field.
But it can’t be up to young people to make this shift in culture. They are not the ones who can create the opportunities and something that would make apprenticeships viable options. People and companies who are leaders in their fields need to step up and make an active effort toward creating apprenticeships and encouraging students to apply for them. If we had more competitive apprenticeships in a wider variety of fields for students pursuing a broader range of educational and career goals, we could see a massive shift in the way apprenticeships look in our country.
Apprenticeships aren’t for everyone — they have a lot to offer some students, and less to offer others. But when students don’t even see them as an option, or don’t see them as a desirable one, we have a problem. When we know how much good apprenticeships can offer, it simply doesn’t make sense that only 500,000 students in the entire country are reaping those rewards.