What Is the ‘Lost Decade’ and Are Apprenticeships the Way to Go?

In much of western Europe, compulsory education ends after ninth grade. From there, students can choose to follow a college-preparatory or a vocational path. In Switzerland, fully 70 percent of students choose a vocational path over the academic, with about 230 different occupations from which to choose. Student spend about four years working an apprenticeship for a sponsoring employer, while taking two days of classroom work per week. Upon completion, the students can either go on to university studies, or to continue with their vocational employer.

Americans Largely Have Rejected Apprenticeship Programs

In the United States, where apprenticeship programs founded during the Depression as the National Apprenticeship Act, a push for four-year degrees in recent decades has resulted in a lost cadre of workers who aren’t interested in college, but would still have skills to offer if properly trained. Apprenticeships never caught on, however, and became associated culturally with second-class skills. As baby boomers came of age, the labor unions who traditionally sponsored apprenticeships began to decline, and students flocked to college in the 1960s and 1970s.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor lists 21,000 apprenticeship occupations, from everything to accordion-making and carpentry, HVAC and wine-making. Growth has been steady in the apprenticeship sector, growing more than 100,000 workers in the last five years to more than half a million at the end of 2016. Despite the growth, this accounts for less than two percent of the youth workforce.

The “lost decade,” in modern usage, describes the gap between when young workers graduate from high school, and when they enter a middle-skill or apprenticeship job. Instead, workers either toil in low-wage, unskilled jobs or they go to college and later decide to pursue other opportunities. Some take even longer than that first decade to change careers.

What Happens After the Lost Decade Goes By?

Lee Ryan, 44, of Kalamazoo, Mich., is one such worker. He has a degree in the social sciences from a university in Illinois, but he found that he was unable to find a fulfilling career with it. He bounced around from working at a Juice Stop and a Jiffy Lube, to call centers and customer service positions before he decided to become an electrician in his mid-30s. With a family to help support, he realized not having a clear career path wasn’t going to provide the life he wanted. He joined a local union and began working as a commercial electrician, with steady work and good benefits.

“I was never going to get ahead doing what I was doing,” Ryan said. “I don’t regret getting a degree, but ultimately, it didn’t do me any good.”

The demand for the skilled trades is huge: an estimated three million American jobs are vacant for want of workers. This includes more than a half million jobs in manufacturing. As we will always need electricians, plumbers, mechanics, carpenters and other skilled tradesmen, there is a high degree of job security. This demand will increase dramatically in the next 15 years, as millions of baby boomers move on to retirement. Fully one-third of those who work in the skilled trades will retire by 2030.

A Culture Shift

The shift to offering youth other opportunities besides a four-year degree is one that has to come from a culture change. Though chatter about vocational and middle skills is getting louder, many youth and parents do not consider anything other than a four-year college degree.
“From a very young age, children in America are taught that there are two types of people—people who attend traditional four-year universities and people who lack the higher education necessary to move upward economically,” writes Arthur Posey of vocational education advocate Uncollege.

For workers like Ryan, the idea of moving into the trades was not a mystery, as his family had strong roots in the working class.

But for others, who continue to buy into the class differences of vocational training vs. a four-year degree, the option may simply not be articulated. Community colleges and nonprofit trade schools often offer an entry into the job market at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional university degrees.

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