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Are apprenticeships the answer?

American youth enter the job market alone. Young Europeans are led through an apprenticeship system.

Freedom of choice and independence of action have always been important to Americans. But young people looking for work are finding it tough to translate that dream into a reality. Unlike their European counterparts, many U.S. teen-agers leave school without a clue about career alternatives or the skills needed to enter a field.

Many teen-agers who do not go to college drift from job to job. If they are lucky, they find a "good job" by their mid-20s. If not, they have alternating periods of low-wage employment and joblessness, usually without unemployment compensation. But some people assert that things do not have to be this way and that we can improve the school-to-work transition by taking European models and adapting them to the American system.

In the black community, higher education has been a route to the middle class. Others without a college degree used high-wage manufacturing jobs as a step toward upward mobility. But those jobs have been shrinking and joblessness or low-wage service jobs are now the only alternatives for young school dropouts.

One way to move more youth into productive jobs has been to keep them in school until they complete high school. Stay-in-school programs and school-business partnerships are used to achieve this goal. Attempts have also been made to improve vocational education by combining a good basic education and relevant job skills. Consequently, the percentage of black males between 18 and 24, who have completed high school, has increased from 55% in 1970 to 72% in 1988. But neither strategy has ensured that these young people get jobs. In response, policy analysts and educators say we need a new system for producing good workers. They see examples in Western Europe.

American youth enter the job market on their own. European youth are led into the labor force through an extensive apprenticeship system. One of the oldest and most elaborate systems is Germany's "dual system." In it, students are guided along career paths from an early age, when decisions are made that place them in specialized education. At age 15 or 16, after three to five years of education in a "trade" track, students choose a specific trade and seek an apprenticeship position in a business. They make their selection based on school information and a national placement service. They apply to an employer and, if accepted, a contract between the student and the employer is negotiated. The apprenticeship, which is typically three years, includes classroom instruction and on-the-job training with instruction from a master in the trade. At the end of the period, a student who successfully completes examinations is credentialed in the profession.

Other European countries have different systems. Sweden makes local government responsible for students until they reach 18, whether enrolled in school or not. When students drop out of school their names are sent to the Youth Center system, which tries to prepare them for the labor force.

These models have features attractive to U.S. educators and policymakers. A major requirement is agreement among government, business and unions to establish standards and commit resources. The credentials an apprentice receives when he or she successfully completes the program are valued and accepted by employers.

But will these programs help our young people? What if a dual system creates an unfair arrangement where some people receive better jobs through good placements, while others get less desirable opportunities? Also, considering the shift in the types of jobs available in the United States during the past decade, will there be a sufficient number in the future to make the apprenticeship system viable?
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Author:Simms, Margaret C.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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