Are on-the-job “apprenticeships” an alternative to higher education?

I was interested to learn that the Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama has been investigating whether German-style “apprenticeships” might be a viable alternative to college education for the young people of his city.

Mayors and governors of both parties tout German-style apprenticeships as an alternative pathway to employment, in the face of ballooning college tuition and the need for career options for noncollege graduates.

. . .

Fascination with Germany’s apprenticeship model comes at a time when Germany itself is showing signs of fatigue with its own system and adopting a more-American college-based approach.

In 2016, about 52% of German high-school graduates became apprentices, down from roughly two-thirds 20 years ago. At the same time, 57% of high school graduates started college, up from about one-third two decades earlier.

On a tour of the software company’s training facility, Mr. Woodfin saw these contradictions up close.

A dozen men in their late teens flitted between classrooms and an industrial-looking floor with large computers and 3-D printers. The apprentices, studying to become programmers or engineers, split their time learning a nationally-standardized curriculum and working alongside mentors to learn the ways of the company.

The company had recently opened a U.S. office in Birmingham, and the mayor had come in part to ask executives to export their apprenticeship curriculum to his city. But when he inquired at the boardroom table, abat’s managing director, Jörg Pieper, demurred.

The U.S. government doesn’t regulate apprenticeships the same way, he said, and abat would need to invest more to build a quality curriculum. Because U.S. schools aren’t designed for apprenticeships, the company would have to look for applicants. And the credentials it awards might not be recognized by other companies, he added.

But there was a more basic problem, Mr. Pieper said—that of perception. “In the United States, from my experience, you are out of high school, and you are just labor, or you go to university. There is nothing in between,” he told Mr. Woodfin. “The apprenticeship—it’s not considered a good education.”

Yet for Alabama, it could provide one answer to what students do when they finish high school, Mr. Woodfin said.

About 85% of the city’s students graduate high school, but just 55% head to college. Many of the rest, Mr. Woodfin said, find themselves stuck in “dead end” jobs, or not working at all. As a high-school student, Mr. Woodfin said, he rang up groceries for class credit at a supermarket near his home, leaving school long before the closing bell. These days, he said, schools don’t promote work as an option, and many students don’t see it as an honorable way to learn.

“It’s on us to articulate that those options exist and should be valued,” he said.

There’s more at the link.

I can attest from personal experience that on-the-job “apprenticeships” of this kind really do work.  When I finished my initial period of military service, that’s how I became a computer programmer.  I tested well for the necessary aptitude, and as a result was accepted into an on-the-job training program at a major oil company’s South African operation.  Over the course of six months I did a series of audio-visual courses (remember those?), each preceded and followed by hands-on training with a senior programmer, who corrected my errors, showed me the company’s way of doing things (which didn’t always coincide with what the courses taught), and generally kept me pointed in the right direction.  For the next two years, as I gained experience, I worked with a team of more senior programmers, all of whom continued to educate me and sharpen my skills.  I turned into a pretty good programmer, if I do say so myself.

The big problem is that standards vary between companies.  One corporation’s course in (say) drafting, or computer programming, or maintenance, may not be as good as another organization’s equivalent, or cover the same material.  In the absence of any national or industry-wide standard of education and/or certification, who’s to say?  Some industries have tried to establish their own standards.  (For example, in South Africa, the Computer Users Council developed its own COBOL programming course, tested in a standardized examination, which I had to pass to be considered “qualified”).  Other industry bodies have their own proprietary “certifications” (e.g. the Society for Human Resource Management has a certification program for its members).  That, at least, gives a level of comparative assessment that may be useful for hiring purposes in specific industries.

(Of course, such programs aren’t the same as a traditional “apprenticeship” in one of the skilled trades such as plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and soon.  Those are far more rigorous, and usually take at least three to four years to complete, including post-high-school technical tertiary education.  Mike Rowe’s foundation is doing sterling work promoting options in this field, and I’m profoundly grateful to him for putting so much work into it.)

Germany had (and to some extent still has) a well-developed system of technical education, all the way up to a so-called “engineer’s degree“, offering a viable alternative to traditional academic education.  The now-defunct title of “Diplom-Ingenieur” was a significant achievement, and the holder got real respect for the hard work and technical knowledge necessary to attain it.  South Africa had a similar system of so-called “technical colleges” (now, sadly, rolled into the university system and no longer a separate education track).  Graduates from such colleges were often even more sought after by industry than “academic” Masters or Doctors graduates in engineering, because they were considered more practical and production-oriented, instead of the academic orientation of the “classier” degrees.

I’m glad to see Birmingham and other cities looking into alternatives to college education.  However, I suspect the lack of national standards and norms for comparative assessment will make the experiment difficult, if not derail it altogether.  Still, who knows?  With enough effort and motivation, it may become more feasible in future than it is today.  Given the unsatisfactory state of US higher education at present, that’s probably a desirable outcome.



  1. As a German here, I have to make a few comments.

    1. There is no high school in Germany. There are 3 different types of schools that serve in that capacity Hauptschule (main school) is the slowly vanishing school oriented at the blue collar working class, and goes up to 9th grade. Realschule (real school) is the school oriented to the white collar working class and goes to 10th grade. Lastly the Gymnasium aimed for college going to 12th and sometimes 13th grade. The article is pretty vague what type of school is included as "high school".
    2. The apprenticeship is only part of the time in the company doing the training. There is also a standardized accompanying school to give a basic standard regardless of the quality of the company.

    And that the Diplom was replaced by bachelors and masters is a tragedy that the industry has severely complained about as the internationalized standards are lacking compared to the earlier Diplom.

  2. I agree with Rob, the US education system should be viewed as an industry. It just functions off taxpayer dollars.

  3. Rob has it right. Further, the industry is badly out of whack with its existing market and scrambling to compensate, which is where al these 'free college' idea that the Progressive Left is floating come from. They're essentially 'full not-to-hard employment for lefty-intellectual work-shy bums' measures.

    See, the colleges got used to high volumes of students during the baby boom and expanded out of all proportion to likely future need. Then they promulgated the idea that a degree- ANY degree – was a MUST HAVE for anyone who didn't want to flip burgers for a living (which is bushwa). Now even that myth isn't dragging in enough warm bodies, as people are beginning to notice that it leads to a life of slavery to student-loans, so they're trying to get the government to pick up the tab for everything.

  4. Then they promulgated the idea that a degree- ANY degree – was a MUST HAVE for anyone who didn't want to flip burgers for a living

    An idea which was bought hook, line, and sinker, by most Fortune 500 organizations in the mid-to-late '60's. Too bad; it doesn't take a college degree to do 90% of the office (and sales) jobs in those companies.

  5. Hey Peter;

    Excellent article, BTW. As a person working in "The Trades" as they say, I tell kids and teenagers "If you don't mind getting dirty, you can make a real good living with the trades. People have been brainwashed to believe that the only course is to "Go to college", and how many of those kids don't graduate and are hung with student debt out the wazoo or are steered into a career path that has no earning potential after graduation except as a low level government drone making $40,000 a year and having to service the huge student debt incurred for earning a pretty much worthless degree and don't even get me started in the "Gender Studies" or "Ethnic studies" degrees.

  6. Apprenticeships might work in non-college degree industries — and they are current in jobs like plumbing.

    Unfortunately, teaching kids programming or engineering outside of college could be counterproductive. A lot of companies require a college degree for those jobs. Period. Bill Gates could not get a job as a programmer in most large companies because he never finished his degree. I've known several engineers and programmers without degrees and they have a lot of trouble if they need a new job.

    And the "any degree" line is often true. I know of a community college instructor who had to have a masters degree to teach there, even though the degree has nothing to do with the subject matter being taught.

    The same can be true of a high school diploma. Experience and ability don't matter if the job requires it.

    From what I can tell, in our current legal environment this becomes worse. years ago I knew of a company which asked for a masters degree for all jobs, wanting to get those with the guts to apply anyway. Today my guess is doing that is an invitation to a lawsuit from somebody meeting the requirements and not getting the job.

  7. Vocational training and the primacy of the education-financial complex is such a sewer of a subject.

    I have friends who became carpenters, ironworkers, electricians, pipefitters and plumbers. Some are in unions, some are not, some are self-employed. All broke the 6-figure mark in pay by the time we were 25, when I was still scraping by on nothing in grad school.

    In my own line of work, as a merchant mariner, we have credentialism to deal with, something of a flip side of this coin. TO standardize tranining and qualifications, an international treaty was drawn up to set training and education requirements. This resulted of course in diploma mills and gatekeepers popping up. Forced credentialing and certification has led to growth in training schools, where we spend between $1000-3000 per class, with many refresher training classes required every 5 years. This has led to reduced real salaries, as most employers will not pay for classes. Add to that the global nature of our trade, and as MadMcAl noted, international labor does not necessarily offer the same standard, regardless of claims on paper.

    We are required to take classes to be certified in various aspects of our work. Personnel managment and leadership, water survival, electronic navigation, firefighting, etc… About 25 classes which can be taught at a maritime academy (a 4-year college with a training ship besides), or on your own at various training centers before taking the dreaded licensing exam offered by in my case the US Coast Guard.

    One interesting corollary is that American marine engineers can still get licensed without a college degree. This is more common for small ships and tugboats, which is where the jobs are, but many power plants and especially the steam units of nuclear power plants, are managed by engineers who never went to college.

  8. Dad29 the requirement for a degree starts somewhere in the late 70's early 80's. At some point there was a court decision that found aptitude and general intelligence tests were "discriminatory" against minority of your choice. They were forbidden and by 1983 only two of my interviews involved testing of any sort, those were at the NSA (exempted by the government itself) and AT&T (still an exempt monopoly at that time). Everyone else had gone to depending on the colleges/Universities degree to sort the wheat from the chaff. But the idiotic behaviors of forcing all sorts of useless PC courses have diluted that to the point it is nearly useless. Pure engineering schools have MOSTLY held firm but engineering schools in general Universities (Yale, Cornell, Brown etc) have become so tainted as to be almost as bad. And many engineering schools seem to want to add Liberal Arts Majors (MIT, RPI, Cal Tech) especially the most pointless studies and I fear that's going to start wrecking their already tattered value.

  9. I would not recommend a 4 year STEM degree to anyone at this point. The cost/benefit is simply not there anymore when you include having to pay back a college loan. On the other hand, I believe electrician journeyman has now been extended to four years. There is a need or education/training, but many areas of employment have become over credentialed.

  10. Back when the navy still taught future electronics techs and electricians BEE we produced generations of solid hands-on engineers who after a stint in the navy and at navy schools got out, got jobs and took college courses at Phoenix Univ and places like that and got degrees at minimal cost. I worked with them for about 40 years. It was the American 'path of apprentice' and it worked pretty well. I noted that later on when they stopped the navy schools most of the techs were reluctant to fix anything they weren't specifically trained on and couldn't read schematics or follow a techmanual.

  11. Mike Rowe's foundation has been addressing some of this. He has a lot to say about how our education system is letting students and businesses down.

    He certainly doesn't have all the answers, but he does have a couple of them.

  12. I should really read the article more carefully before opening my (digital) yap. I see our host addressed Mike Rowe's efforts in the article. I blame missing that the first time on the early hour and lack of coffee. However, I stick with the second part of what I said in the previous comment. Mr Rowe doesn't have all the answers to fix a broken system, but he does have a couple of them. And good on him for putting so much work into, well, work.

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