Friday, February 25, 2011

Back to the Future: The Need for Apprenticeships and Post-Secondary Certificates

by: Onnalee Kelley

There are broadly three ways to approach post-secondary learning. Some colleges—mainly Liberal Arts institutions—teach their students by providing them with the ability to adapt to many different skill sets. Other universities teach students by focusing intensely upon one particular field that corresponds with a student’s major. Lastly, training from certificates and apprentices immerse the student in a particular skill set and teach him or her kinesthetically as well as didactically.

At the American Enterprise Institute’s Conference on Higher Education last week, Diane Auer Jones argued for advancement of these post-secondary alternatives by providing information about the benefits of certificates and apprenticeship programs. The three different approaches to learning are all imperative for our society and are individually needed, given the various demands of the labor market. However, President Obama’s goal to have America produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 seems unfeasible and impractical partly because of labor demands. If we look at where the current labor demands are, we notice that there are people who hold BAs and are unemployed or underemployed. CCAP’s study From Wall Street to Wal-Mart identifies that even though proportionately more Americans are achieving college degrees, the college-level job creation has not kept pace. This mismatch leaves 34% of college graduates underemployed. Therefore, I believe President Obama’s goal reinforces this disparity and I do not think we can benefit from having 60% of our population holding a BA degree when many workers already do not need a degree to competently perform their jobs.

There is a popular statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that has become the basis for arguments, like President Obama’s, that we need more college graduates. The data show that almost all of the fastest growing jobs require a college degree. However, as Auer Jones mentioned, our focus should actually be on which jobs are seeing the largest absolute growth, because that is where the most new jobs will be. From this list, only one-fifth of the largest growing jobs require a bachelor degree. Examples of jobs that are on this list are home and personal health aides, customer service representatives, office clerks, and truck drivers. The full BLS list is available here.

The Employment and Training Administration (ETA) is trying to ensure American workers receive high-quality training. While the ETA is looking for new ways to train workers efficiently and effectively, the Department of Education (ED) is trying to get people more Bachelor’s degrees, even though a Bachelor’s degree might not be the best way to train these future workers. These two government bureaucracies are not working together with a common goal. Along with this troublesome dichotomy, the market calls for workers in jobs that do not require Bachelor’s degrees. Do we need retail salespeople to be educated at an elite East Coast school? Do we need truck drivers to major in philosophy at a 4 year college? From an economic and practical stand point, the answer to those questions is no. These examples represent imbalanced and mismatched post-secondary education.

Certificates and apprenticeships are effective, productive, and quite affordable. They provide a pathway for students to be educated efficiently and a way for businesses to hire quality employees. Both the employee and the business make a well-informed decision to work or hire, which would drastically decrease mismatched pairs. Currently, there are only about 28,000 registered apprenticeship programs which are poorly advertised and many students are uninformed of this as a post-secondary option. Certificates that take a year or more to obtain are slightly fewer than 400,000. These are growing at a slow rate because of the community colleges are shifting the programs from long-term to short-term certificates. Certificates that are over a year have a great sustainability rate for the career at hand. The ETA and the ED should focus more on the advancement of apprenticeship programs and long-term certificates instead of aiming for more people to get BAs. Once the focus is shifted, these types of education programs will create a more productive, educated, and market-based society.

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