Promoting Youth Apprenticeship in America

Did anybody even notice when President Obama said that he wanted to create “more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life” in the last State of the Union address? I don’t think so, because I haven’t heard a word of follow-up since. Youth apprenticeship has been one of the most intriguing programs I have observed here in England. Here’s a short video explaining the program, and there are lots more available from England’s National Apprenticeship Service Youtube channel.

My American conception of what apprenticeship means was set on its ear when I visited an 18 year-old apprentice Office Manager for a startup small business magazine here in Leeds. I had always pictured apprenticeships in large factories or in the construction trades. My mental image of an apprentice was always male, and definitely older than the young woman I observed in the magazine office. Here was this vibrant young woman, coordinating the work of designers, writers, and copy editors in a creative, youthful office place. She was involved with a team that asked for her input and supported her learning. She had started her apprenticeship when she was 17, and is earning the equivalent of high school credits through her work. England doesn’t issue a high school diploma. Students earn qualifications in specific coursework, and this apprentice was earning qualifications in Team Leadership, leading to Business Management. She has to do about 20% of her work in written assignments outside of the work setting, but most of her learning takes place on the job. Apprenticeships are paid jobs, but the pay can be lower than the national minimum wage. Some in England argue that the lower pay can lead to exploitation of younger workers, but when you consider the number of unpaid internships in the U.S., a pathway that allows students to “earn while they learn” seems like it could include many young people who can’t afford to give up work to get an education.

England hasn’t always had a strong system of apprenticeship. It took intense government investment to revitalize the program beginning in the 1990’s, and continuing to a restructuring of the program into the coordinated National Apprenticeship Service that now oversees all aspects of apprenticeships. This week is National Apprenticeship Week, with events all over the country celebrating apprentices and their employers. On Friday, I’m attending the Health Education Yorkshire and the Humber Apprenticeship Awards, and have been asked to write a short piece for the group from my perspective as an American observer. I’m looking forward to meeting more people involved with apprenticeships and thinking about how apprenticeship could work for us in Tennessee.

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