Intro. [Recording date: June 1st, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is June 1st, 2020 and I want to mention that we are recording this in the middle of the pandemic. I ask listeners to be patient if our audio quality is not up to our usual standards. We're using different equipment, and the WiFi in the Roberts' household is a bit stretched and stressed. I also want to mention that every EconTalk episode is now up at YouTube. These are typically audio files, but we've started recording video as well for those who might want to see my pandemic beard, etc. Just search 'EconTalk' at YouTube and please subscribe.
Russ Roberts: And now, for today's guest, economist Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute and American University. He's written widely on topics on Labor Economics. Our topic for today is: The young people in America are struggling to find meaningful and productive work and the potential for apprenticeships to make a difference in their lives. Robert, welcome to EconTalk.
Robert Lerman: Thank you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Now, let's start with the nature of the problem. What's the question that apprenticeships might be answering?
Robert Lerman: Well, apprenticeships answer two questions. One is how to widen the routes for rewarding careers for young people; and also, how to improve the match between skills and jobs and careers for companies, making them more productive?
Russ Roberts: You've been writing about this for a long time.
Russ Roberts: I found something from 1990, probably the first thing you wrote. So, that's 30 years ago. How long have you been interested in apprenticeships?
Robert Lerman: Well, about 34 years ago.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Robert Lerman: I started being very interested in youth. Youth unemployment was my dissertation topic way back in 1970. I worked at the Department of Labor. I worked in academic institutions on that question, and really got frustrated with the types of programs that the Labor Department was pushing. I thought that they might be okay for the very bottom group, but they were missing a large segment of the youth population.
I then learned about the European systems, especially Germany and Switzerland, and began to think we ought to take a look at them.
Russ Roberts: I think most of us don't really have an idea of what an apprenticeship is except maybe something we read about from the Middle Ages and the guild. Let's start with how they work in Europe and what population they serve.
Robert Lerman: Well, first of all, Europe is varied. You have Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Austria--always excellent programs that start at relatively young ages, could be 15, 16. And, they combine coursework with on-the-job learning, but the on-the-job learning has what we might call dual production. It's the production of skills along with the production at the workplace. So, they're helping contribute to output at the same time.
The apprenticeships in the United States have traditionally been in the trades, especially the building trades, construction; and they start at a much older age. Typically, U.S. apprenticeships start at the age of 26, 27, 28. Whereas in those European countries, where apprenticeship is robust, they start in late high school.
Russ Roberts: When the workers are in these programs, are they getting paid?
Robert Lerman: Yes. Apprenticeships are paid. They involve mentoring by somebody at the workplace ; but they also undertake jobs at varying levels of skills.
So, the apprentices would start out on the first day doing some work. It's going to be low-skill work at the beginning. But, over time, their skill levels increased. Their pay levels increase a bit. But there's a kind of turning point where the pay levels are less than the productivity, and that's where the companies are able to recoup some of their investment.
Russ Roberts: Give us an idea of what the pay might be and how long that apprenticeship lasts in a European setting.
Robert Lerman: Yeah. Well, the apprenticeships in Europe last two to four years, sometimes five--depends on the occupation. The wages are often somewhere around 50% of what a skilled worker would make, but in Switzerland, when they start young, it's 20%. So, think of a skilled worker maybe getting $20-$22 an hour, and the apprentice is getting $4 an hour. But, that's more than they would get sitting in a classroom; and they're getting a lot of investment by the company in their skill.
Russ Roberts: Do we have any--well, let me ask a better question. In the European settings, what's the role of the government?
Robert Lerman: Well, the government plays a big role in the off-job learning. So, because these apprenticeships start in late high school--and high school here is an entitlement, as it is there--the schooling component of an apprenticeship is paid for by the government. The government also has an oversight role, but usually a lot of the governance is taking place with industry associations, sometimes labor groups, especially in Germany, and the government has underlying legislation.
So, the government funding is mainly for the off-job learning. The companies pay the wages. The companies pay for the mentors. And, that's the government role.
Russ Roberts: Can anybody, any company, start one, be a part of it?
Robert Lerman: Well, yes. Although in Germany, things are more regulated than in other places. In Germany, in a lot of professions, you can't get into them unless you've gone through an apprenticeship. But, yeah, any company. There's--maybe 30%, 40% of companies have apprenticeships.
Russ Roberts: The numbers vary greatly in Europe, but they're all greater than the numbers in the United States. If I remember correctly, it's about 10 times more prevalent in Europe than they are in the United States. Is that right?
Robert Lerman: Well, again, let's make sure we talk about Europe as a mix. But, yeah, in the robust countries, even England, there are about 10 times what we have.
Russ Roberts: But they're still small. It's only about 2% to 4%? Is that an accurate number of the workforce?
Robert Lerman: Well, it's 2% to 4% of the workforce, but remember, it's a big chunk of a cohort.
So, in Switzerland, about 70% of the cohort goes through an apprenticeship, the cohort--
Russ Roberts: You mean, of a particular age group--
Robert Lerman: Germany is more like 50.
Russ Roberts: Is that because they started a long time ago, I mean, they have started only recently?
Robert Lerman: No, no. It's just the way the mathematics work out.
Russ Roberts: It's not a count of how many have been in an apprenticeship. It's how many are in it now.
Robert Lerman: Right. Right, right, right.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Fine.
Robert Lerman: It's the stock, currently, in apprenticeships.
Russ Roberts: And the number in the United States is less than 1%, a fraction of 1%. Correct?
Robert Lerman: Yeah. It's less than a half percent.
Russ Roberts: And, what's the reason--so, for me, when I hear about it, for me, it seems to be--it fascinates me that there's been a--it's come to be received wisdom in the United States that "everyone should go to college." This strikes me as a really bad idea--for many, many reasons. One of which is: College isn't for everyone. Not everyone is good at what we call college or the skills that one typically acquires in college.
As we have pushed more and more people to college through both subsidies in the lending market and in the actual provision of state schooling and so on, we've encouraged people to study things that are not particularly productive. That's not the only reason to go to college, of course, but it is encouraged because the proportion of the population is so much larger.
So many of the people who go don't finish. And, if you don't finish, the financial gains are quite small. It seems to me that that was a bad path. Do you agree?
Robert Lerman: I absolutely agree. The one thing that people pushing apprenticeship today point out is that the academic component of apprenticeships often are at the level of some at least community college-level courses. So, the apprentices are taking some academic component.
If you look, the best apprenticeship program in the United States, at scale, is the Newport News Shipyard, which takes about 150 to 200 apprentices a year. They are working on the very first day, but it's a four-year program with plenty of courses, and they have 4,000 applications.
So, you can combine some positive elements of academic learning through a kind of college experience with a high quality apprenticeship.
Russ Roberts: How old are those students in that particular apprenticeship?
Robert Lerman: Those students come out, mostly out of high school.
Russ Roberts: They finished high school.
Robert Lerman: They graduated high school. Yeah. It's quite amazing. They have sports teams, and a lot of the accoutrements of a college experience there.
Russ Roberts: So, what's the difference--let's back up, actually, and let's talk a little bit about the post-high school educational landscape.
So, we've got so-called four-year BA [Bachelor of Arts], bachelors' degree programs, that are the major state universities, many of the private universities. We have two-year associate degree programs. We have Community Colleges, which I'm not sure what distinguishes them from the public schools at the state level. They're cheaper, and they typically don't offer the accoutrements of college life. They're typically for commuters and people living at home. There's probably a few I've left out.
But, one of the things that I didn't mention is vocational training. And, why isn't vocational training a better way to get there from here? Why isn't vocational training for people who don't want to go to college--aren't good at college, don't want to study STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics], can't study STEM--that is science, tech, math, engineering? What's wrong with vocational training as apprenticeship alternative? And, why isn't that--why isn't vocational training offered more widely, teaching people how to be plumbers, electricians, and so on?
Robert Lerman: Yeah. Well, we do have vocational training. The high schools have reduced their amounts, but there's still some. We have--actually, there's a Federal act called the Perkins Act, that provides a billion and a half bucks for both secondary and post-secondary vocational training. The Community Colleges, a number of them do have courses that relate to particular occupations.
The problem is that they're untethered from the labor market. And, in two ways.
One is: the mix of occupations and the kind of occupational learning. And the other is that many things you really can't learn just in a classroom. You do need a lot of hands-on learning for many occupations, including many of the highest-level occupations--
Russ Roberts: For sure--
Robert Lerman: I mean, you look at doctors, and even lawyers. I have a friend that told me that they were hiring these highly-paid lawyers out of Ivy League law schools, and they couldn't do anything for a year.
Russ Roberts: No; that's a problem. Yeah.
Robert Lerman: And, so, the role of work-based learning is critical, in my view, to succeeding.
But in many of the apprenticeships, they do need to take a good, let's say, math course, or a good--and the positive thing is that it's a much greater level of engagement when they take that course. There's a much greater notion of relevance because they're using it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. They might also focus on the skills within the math class that would be most useful rather than the most interesting to the--
Robert Lerman: Right, and there are a number of what we might call employability skills. Which employers complain incessantly that workers don't have--
Russ Roberts: Like?--
Robert Lerman: But in an apprenticeship, you gradually build those up with a mentor.
Russ Roberts: You're talking about promptness, politeness.
Robert Lerman: Problem solving, teamwork.
Russ Roberts: Teamwork. Yeah.
Robert Lerman: Knowing exactly how to work with a supervisor, maybe thick skin.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Acquiring thicker skin would seem to be an important attribute of a--
Robert Lerman: Yeah, I believe so.
Russ Roberts: So, I mean, it's an attractive idea that has gotten not much traction here in the United States. One could argue that there are some special interests. Obviously, professors benefit from having, and others--administrators benefit from having college be the default choice for what comes after high school. You could argue that our guild, the economist guild, likes the current situation.
What do you think is stopping the apprenticeship idea from getting more traction here in the United States? Because it sounds good on paper. I have some criticisms of it that I'll raise in a minute, but on paper, it sounds great. What's wrong--why isn't it happening?
Robert Lerman: Well, I think we have to go back to what happened in the late '80s, early '90s because that's, you know, kind of a natural experiment. There was a lot of interest. And, my 1990 article and some others were helping generate that interest to the point where President George H. W. Bush proposed the National Youth Apprenticeship Act of 1992. And, this was an idea to use the term 'youth apprenticeship,' because in America, most apprentices were in construction and started much later.
And there was a lot of enthusiasm at the time. Bill Clinton had a little program in Arkansas in youth apprenticeship. And when he came in, there was a lot of interest.
But what happened was the legislation pretty much knocked out youth apprenticeship. It was called the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and it had all kinds of very thin types of vocational work-oriented learning, like job shadowing and things of that sort.
And one reason was that people said, 'Well, you know, vocational ed--it's going to be too much like very ocational education--which was tracking, taking kids that could have done very well in college, pushing them off into some vocation.'
And that basically was one of the two elements that caused this enthusiasm for youth apprenticeship to degenerate into something was called work-based learning, I mean, school-to-work-oriented program.
The other element was that the construction unions had what they thought was their ownership of apprenticeship with an office of apprenticeship and them being on many state boards and national boards. And they didn't really want competition. Even though it was going to be in other fields.
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Robert Lerman: So, the result was apprenticeship was barely mentioned in that legislation.
But, in the last few years, we have had some renewed interest. Late in the Obama Administration and now in the Trump Administration, there has been some funding. And, we're working on it now to try to regenerate interest.
I think the reason for the regeneration of interest is what you were referring earlier. This college-for-all thing doesn't work, and people are beginning to realize it's a costly failure.
Russ Roberts: Is there a potential for this, potential rebirth to start at an earlier age other than post college? One of the attractions to me of the teenage model is that it gives people a flavor of what that life would be like at a time when it's relatively inexpensive to find out what that life would be like, whatever it is.
Robert Lerman: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, the Congress now has authorized more money for apprenticeship. The amount that the Federal government helped with over the years was trivial. The number of people in the Office of Apprenticeship went from about 300 to 130. The amount of money spent was $25 million, which--yk, there was one person in Indiana, two people in Ohio for an entire state.
So, now, there has been some funding, and they're funding intermediaries, including the Urban Institute to help--
Russ Roberts: Where you work, yeah--
Robert Lerman: stimulate youth apprenticeship and other kinds of apprenticeships. We're learning a lot. The key, the key is helping employers understand how to do apprenticeship.
One of the more interesting things that rekindled my interest was the success of England and the success of South Carolina. What happened in England was they let their apprenticeship program atrophy, and then Tony Blair got things started again. Prime Minister Cameron was a big supporter of apprenticeship. And they went from about 150,000 to 850,000 in a period of about eight, nine years.
And, one of the ways they were able to do it was to provide subsidies to private, often for-profit workplace training organizations that sought in their interest to stimulate companies to start apprenticeships; and they did it.
And, South Carolina is another interesting example because in 2007 and 2008, they had 90 companies doing apprenticeship. They created an organization called Apprenticeship Carolina, branded very carefully to give it a local feel, and they went from 70 companies--excuse me, 90 companies--to over 700. How they were able to sell it was quite interesting.
Russ Roberts: Tell us. How did they sell it?
Robert Lerman: Well, they hired people who knew nothing apprenticeship, but they knew a lot about business and they knew a lot about sales. Then they did a bootcamp on apprenticeship. What is apprenticeship? They had a really interesting Federal representative down there that taught them and helped them through the process. They also had a $1,000 tax credit, which didn't do too much other than open companies' eyes: what is this, what's it about? They were very professional. They became consultants, human resource consultants. They would ask, 'What kind of training are you doing now? Do you want to make it into a better training, something more rigorous?' They would give them ideas and help them through it. They would do all the paperwork. And, they succeeded.
And, once you get a company doing something, it takes on a whole different aspect than working with schools.
We found that out this year. We were thinking, 'Well, we'll get some schools interested and get their employer contacts; and we'll get some employers interested, and we'll get their school contacts.' The school part didn't work out at all, but when we went and really stimulated employer interests, we were able to generate hundreds of these youth apprenticeships.
Russ Roberts: So, let's step back now--and that's fantastic background. Obviously, there's a question of how the lives of those 850,000 apprentices in the United Kingdom turned out or the people in South Carolina. I'm sure people tried to measure that, and there's some mixed stories--some of it is probably good; some of it maybe not so good. But let's put this into a bigger context now in the United States in the last 30, 40 years of economic change. So, here's how I look at it now. I'll let you react to it.
So, since the 1950s, manufacturing employment as a fraction of the total has fallen steadily. Manufacturing employment was a place--for a long time, maybe half a century, a little bit less than half a century, but important part of the 20th century--where people with limited skills but lots of grit or effort or devotion or inspiration could make a decent living, raise a family, get a house. And that was an important option for people who couldn't go to college, didn't want to go to college, which at the time was a small group, anyway.
And as that proportion fell, due to a combination of trade and innovation and productivity, as fewer and fewer job opportunities existed in manufacturing, people who didn't have either the cognitive skills or the opportunities because they had a lousy public school or they had limited access to borrowing, they were stuck in jobs that were not as productive or as compelling as had been those manufacturing jobs in the past.
And it seems to me that--ao, we had two choices as a country for how to cope with this transition. One was to change the nature of what we called school, to change the nature. I mean, our schooling system in America is overwhelmingly, in my view--perhaps unfairly--but overwhelmingly adapted toward excelling at entrance exams and to get you into the next schooling level, which was college.
The amount that was learned at the K-12 level [Kindergarten through 12th grade] is relatively small to what it could be, and it was very, what we might call, I don't know, book learning. And human experience is much broader than that. We didn't allow for much trial and error in that. Essentially, every school in America is a version of college prep, ignoring the reality that most kids aren't going--in some schools are not going to go to college, can't go to college, don't want to go to college, won't do well in college, don't want the jobs that would come from going to college.
So, it seems to me we had a set of choices on how to cope with this transition. We made all the wrong ones. We made college cheaper as a way to make it easier to attend. We continue to preach that this college premium, that college graduates made more than high school graduates, was a golden ring you could grab if you got onto the right carousel, the right merry-go-round.
And I think we sold a couple of generations of the students of America of a dishonest truth, a lie. And as a result, what we should have been doing instead was changing to using trial and error to do a whole bunch of things--one of which would be to change the nature of schools. The second would be to offer things like vocational training. The third would be to offer the kind of apprenticeship programs that would be an alternative to high school. It's important to me that that would be part of that.
And we've done virtually none of that. We've had a bunch of episodes recently on the charter school system. Charter school is, I think an improved college prep program for a very small group of students. It's hard to scale it. It doesn't solve the problem of what to do once you get to college and what you're going to do after college. It's a big improvement. I think it's a huge improvement, but it's relatively small in its impact so far, and its impact might be limited even if it had been more widely available and becomes more widely available. It seems to me we need a much more diverse set of options as we deal with this transition from agriculture to manufacturing, to the so-called knowledge economy, and we've really just done that very poorly.
Robert Lerman: Well, I agree 100%. I would make a few amendments.
Russ Roberts: Go.
Robert Lerman: One is that the manufacturing component was mainly for men.
Russ Roberts: True.
Robert Lerman: That's perhaps one of the reasons why we've seen men's earnings be flatter than women's. Women have been more in occupations that have been growing, especially, for example, healthcare, where employment has been expanding rapidly.
A second point I would make is that in countries like Switzerland and Germany, where apprenticeship helps with high-level manufacturing, you have a much higher share of the workforce in manufacturing. And if you multiply that almost by two because, again, men are the main workers in manufacturing, you get a nontrivial share.
So, we have--I agree completely with your characterization of the education side.
I think that there is a misunderstanding, though, of what skill means. I think part of the problem is that people who define those policies, who define education, miss many elements of skills.
I mean, Jim Heckman has written a lot about this in terms of the role of non-cognitive skills. But, even in manufacturing--I worked in a company that my dad started, Steel Service Center. One of the machines was to operate a slitting machine, which takes a wide coil of steel and puts it through a cylinder and knives and cuts it into several narrow coils of steel, which then is shipped to companies who make, stamp out parts from those narrower coils.
And, I recall vividly that the quality of the slitter operators varied quite a bit. One slitter operator, George Paige[?sp.?], was so talented that when a company had a hard job, they said, 'Have George Paige[?] do it.' And, George Paige[?] had a considerable amount of skill, but we in the academic community would say, 'Well, this is semi-skilled job,' or even an unskilled.
Russ Roberts: Unskilled, yeah.
Robert Lerman: But they missed the reality of what skill is. And especially if you take some of the trades. They are confronting different problems almost everyday. And they need to have a lot of skill and adaptability and kind of understanding. A lot of which comes only from experience.
So, I think that is a key element of how this, what I call the academic-only approach, emerged, and even--I was at a conference where a graduate student, a Harvard graduate student, was explaining what was going on. And he put up a graph, and the graph was educational attainment, the trend in educational attainment. And he said, 'Well, here's the trend of skill in the United States.'
And, you know, I'm asking myself, 'How did that become an identity?' It's wrong. Anyone thinking a few minutes about it would know that a top baseball player might not have the academic skills, but he certainly has a lot of marketable skills.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It reminds me of a whole set of problems that I've been thinking about lately, and I'm thinking of trying to write a book about, which is the challenge of remembering there were things other than what can be measured, which is really hard I think for people. Economists had this. It goes back to my Ph.D. adviser, Gary Becker, his book Human Capital, and has worked on human capital in the mid-1960s. It's this really brilliant and clever idea to try to measure human capital--the knowledge and ability that people bring to the job that translates into earnings.
That was a great idea. And yet, it inevitably got measured--human capital--got measured as years of schooling: the time your rear end sat in a seat rather than what you absorbed in the classroom experience to start with.
And of course, there are aspects of human capital that go way beyond what you learn in the classroom, as you're pointing out. There's know-how. There's art. There's craftsmanship. There's all kinds of really important things for George Paige[?] and others who would actually work on the job. And the people that manage those people and the co-workers, they know who those people are. They can tell you who is more skilled than others.
But if their measure of what you bring to the workforce is how many years of schooling you have, to say that's a blunt measure is a joke.
And of course, it then gets the subtler version of, 'Well, yeah: it's not just years of schooling. It's what you studied.' But, of course, it's also what you learned, whether you're paying attention, even if you got good grades. I mean, there's so many aspects to it. And I think our profession bears some of the blame for the overemphasis on extremely blunt measures of ability and skill.
Robert Lerman: Right. I've written about that. Test scores is the other indicator. But, the two areas that, again, are obvious once you say it, are occupational skills and, as I mentioned, these employability skills, which can be ingenuity and sort of coming up with, you know, bottom up innovation. And, those skills are valued, but they are, as you say, hard to measure even by companies.
What happens with apprenticeship is that you can watch how people are learning.
So, you might start with five apprentices, and the mentors are seeing how they're learning. Some of them are taking to it. One may drop out. He's not as interested. But again, as you say, if you start young, it's not that big a loss. The person at least has gotten some familiarity with workplaces, gotten a little pay. And the employer begins to see which of these four remaining ones are the ones they really want to keep.
And the second thing is that the apprentices, the specific skill is taking place as well, in the workplace. Because, you're learning that occupation in the context of a particular company. So, you're learning the company culture. You're learning where things are. You'd have to learn that even if you hired somebody off the street for that job.
So, that's why apprenticeship can work well with companies. Once they learn how to do it, once they kind of get used to the idea, the saving in recruitment, in retention can be significant. But, as you say, most companies don't really know it. Most Americans don't really know it.
Russ Roberts: So, what we have in America, though, which is kind of similar, is we have an internship. Which is kind of an unpaid apprenticeship. And of course, there's been some criticism of internships--it's one of the great unintended consequences of either well-meaning or poorly designed public policy. You know, people say, 'Well, internships are unfair because only rich people can afford--only children of the wealthy can afford to work at a job and not be paid. So, we should require internships to be paid.' That makes them a little bit more like apprenticeships. It doesn't have the close tie of the educational component to the practical component, but it's a start.
And I think it's a wonderful thing. Almost all the internships that my kids were able to do were informative for them, educational. They learned--as we've been talking about--not just the details of that job, but how to work well with others, how to present yourself, how to deal with things that aren't fun like getting up every morning and getting to work.
And yet, people say, 'Well, it's unfair. So, they have to be paid.' Which, of course, means now to get an internship, you have to have enough skill to make it worthwhile; which, of course, privileges people who grew up in wealthy households. I've been seeing--I mean, it's worse. It's much worse. So, I think that was a terrible mistake. I think that's a national, Federal problem now, not just a state problem.
But anyway, an internship is a half-apprenticeship, of sorts. And I think they're fantastic. I wish there were more of them. And the companies that use them, of course, as you say, use them to look for good employees. And it's fun, too, by the way. It's fun for the managers and mentors in either apprenticeships or internships to guide and inspire a young person, which they were once.
Robert Lerman: Absolutely. Yes. I think both are good. And even--there are some people who are cut out for what I call the academic-only approach. I mean, some people will just thrive in a college university atmosphere. I have a phrase, which I use, which says that 'Sameness is not equality.'
Russ Roberts: Explain.
Robert Lerman: Sameness is not equality. There is a notion that because college is good for some that it should be the same for everybody. And if you don't have the same opportunities, exactly the same approach, you're going to go into an unequal situation.
Well, it's not going to lead to equality. If you force people into that one box, then you're going to have more inequality, because you're not having this diversity of approaches for learning.
I see apprenticeship as essentially about learning. Moreover, I think that when kids learn how to learn through apprenticeship, they have a much better chance of succeeding in academic pursuits. And some of them will have an interest, you know, at age 30 to take more college courses.
The availability of learning is so widespread today that there's a great deal dealing with motivation. And, if you're really motivated to learn world history, you know, you can do it, anyways.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm reminded of when my oldest son--he was probably about four or five years old, might have been six--was admiring a backhoe, a digger, which always fascinated him, anything. He had what economist John Baden, I heard him describe as 'ironitis,'--a fascination with anything made out of metal that afflicts many young children. And my son had that, and he would sit as long as he wanted and just watch.
And I remember one time one of the drivers of the backhoe let my son sit in the seat and steer it and pretend he was steering it. It's probably one of the highlights of his life at that point . And, but there was the other one who literally got in his face at five years old and said, he said, 'Does this look fun to you?'
And my son said, 'Yeah.'
He said, 'Let me give you some advice.' He said, 'Stay in school. It's really nice to work in an office with air conditioning.'
So, you can get information from different places. And you can get excited about different things. And what appeals to you when you're younger can be different from when you're older. But we certainly I think have failed to give people the flavor of what's available out there.
Robert Lerman: Well, an old friend of mine, John Bishop, used to point out that one of the big inputs to education is student time. Student engagement. And I think that's where we've made a huge mistake in not recognizing that engagement can take place in a variety of forms. Again, there may be some people that are totally engaged by an academic professor or a teacher, and of the material. Whereas, others may be engaged with other kinds of things.
And I think that's one of the great things about apprenticeship that you see this variety of occupations. Again, this is in a robust system where there are a lot of apprenticeship offers.
Today, we have this kind of chicken-egg problem. Because there aren't enough offers, counselors are not that much learning about how to refer kids to apprenticeships. And then you don't have the demand on the student part or the supply of students that really want to go into it.
So, we need to build up both sides, the demand for students and the supply of students. I believe, and I've seen it, that where you have high-quality apprenticeships you don't really have a problem attracting students. In fact, usually, there's a waiting list.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about some of the drawbacks to the idea. I bring these up because I think they are drawbacks; but I think it's important to remember to always ask the question: What's the alternative? In light of what I mentioned before is landscape of opportunity for the people who don't have a college opportunity. We'll talk a little bit more about that, I hope, before we finish. But, one of the drawbacks, of course, is that time spent on the job as a teenager is time spent not in school.
So, some people have suggested that an apprenticeship program is a costly investment because you're foregoing the more general education. You're putting your eggs in this one basket when you're a teenager, and you're going to struggle to find opportunity if that particular industry or that particular skill becomes less valued. How do you respond to that?
Robert Lerman: Two ways. First of all, again, apprentices are taking some courses. I think they're going to get a lot more out of those courses because they see the relevance of what they're learning in the academic setting to the occupation.
Second, that if you look at studies of what people are doing, let's say, 30, 40 years after they were in apprenticeships, and you ask them, 'How much do you use of the skills that you've learned in apprenticeship?' the answer is, 'Very high,' for the vast majority of individuals. So, even though they may change occupations, usually, they are in a similar cluster of occupations.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, or skillset.
Robert Lerman: So, the skillsets are still relevant. Usually, things--technical change--occurs incrementally, and your knowledge of the basics of that occupation is very helpful. A friend of mind once did a study of people who design circuit boards. And, sales people would go to companies and say, 'You don't really need people with skill designing. You just need an operator who can punch things out,' and so on.
And they hired some of this equipment and operators. They let go some of their designers. Six months later, they hired them all back, because they needed people who could work where the machine was complementary to what they were doing and not a substitute.
So, finally, I once asked--there's a company in Pennsylvania that has a long experience with apprenticeship. I asked, 'Well, what are they taking as their related academic instruction?'
He said, 'Well, they're taking college physics, college writing at a community college.'
And, you find that, again, it depends on the apprenticeship. We now have in many countries apprenticeships in accounting. I talked to an individual from Germany who told me, who is now a partner in a big accounting firm, and he went to a gymnasium [a kind of college prep school in Germany--Econlib Ed.]. He could have gone into a college directly for free in Germany. Instead, he took a tax apprenticeship. He said, 'That was the best thing I ever did because I learned how to work with clients. When I went back to college I breezed through, and I was very much in demand because I had both sets of skills.'
So, apprenticeship is a mode of learning. Increasingly, it's being applied in white collar professions, IT [Information Technology] particularly--programming, development of projects of that sort. So, again, let's widen the range of things that can be done, use both academic and work-based learning.
Russ Roberts: But it seems to me that that criticism that you're handicapping apprentices because they're not getting the more general education romanticizes the quality of general education for the people we're talking about here who would like to be apprentices. It's tragic, I think, how little students learn in the classroom. They obviously learn a bunch of intangible things in the classroom, by the way, that we have not talked about, we need to be fair about. High school and college is not just about acquiring so-called human capital or actual skills or some thinking and all kinds of other things that might be hard to quantify besides, right? Obviously.
But, I think for the population of, particularly low-income urban students who the charter school movement is trying to help and that are increasingly struggling, I think, to get ahead, we failed them. The idea that they're not going to get this general education is only true if you think that the credential itself is what sustains economic opportunity.
And there is some truth to that, unfortunately, right? Obviously, if you do not finish high school, if you don't get a college degree, you are handicapped in a different set of ways other than just you didn't learn what you could have learned. You are going to have trouble in terms of getting a door open.
But it strikes me that that whole process, the whole emphasis on credentials as a gatekeeper is a mistake, writ large, in the sense that I think the world would be a better place if people were more open to what other ways that people could become valuable.
The apprenticeship idea or vocational training or these other options we've been talking about are ways to broaden all kinds of aspects of this, by the way, not just how easy or hard it is to find a job, with your self-esteem. If you live in a world where college is the measure of who's successful, when that isn't particularly true but it's thought to be true, it's such a terrible--it's a terrible system. Seems like a mistake.
Robert Lerman: Yeah. I want to add something about pride.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Robert Lerman: Let's say you go to college, maybe a community college, even you graduate, but you got a C+ average. The person next to you got a B+ average. The person next to him got an A average. You know that: Yeah, you got through. You can feel, you know, you graduated even a four-year college. You could take some pride in that. But you know that you're way below what some of your classmates have achieved.
What apprenticeship does is it widens the range of people who can be in the top 10%. If you judge people only on the academic side, only 10% are going to be in the top 10%.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It kind of works that way.
Robert Lerman: But if you judge people on how well they are doing as hospital technicians or how well they are doing in customer service or how well they're doing in welding, then, you know, a lot more than 10% could be in the top 10%.
One day, I was giving a talk in Washington at the home of the German Ambassador. There were a number of German managers of U.S. subsidiaries. When I got to the statement about how apprenticeship brings a sense of pride, brings a sense of being part of a community, a practice, they all started shaking their heads. That was something that they all felt. Most of these managers had been through an apprenticeship. When they completed their apprenticeship, they were very proud of what they had accomplished.
And, I think it gives people a sense of accomplishment that a C average, even in graduate, won't get.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The other aspect that we haven't really talked about, which I think is certainly important to human dignity and flourishing and pride, is the concept of mastery. And I think a lot of--if you meet a person who has a mastered something--and I've recently replaced the sliding doors at the back of my house, and we finished the project, and then we realized, 'Oh, we've got to stain them or paint them to protect the wood.' And I thought, 'Oh, yeah. I didn't think about that and the cost.' I called the installer and asked them who they recommended to put the stain on, thinking, 'It's a pretty unskilled job, staining.' I mean, 'It's unskilled but I can't do it.' Yeah, other than that, I do it badly--but, okay.
So, I asked them, and they recommended someone. They recommended a couple of people. And I called them both. And, one was dramatically more expensive than the other, and the total was a shocking number of what it was going to cost. I thought, 'Oh, this is awful; obviously, I don't need to pay this amount.'
And I called my brother-in-law. He said that was about what he'd have expected. My brother-in-law is wiser than I am in these areas. He said, 'Yeah, that's about what I expected.'
Russ Roberts: I said, 'Why is it so expensive?'
He said, 'Well, it takes about a day to do it all.'
'A day?' I'm thinking, 'There's almost no wood, and the door is almost all glass. How long can it actually take?'
He said, 'Well, you've got to put four or five coats down.'
I'm thinking, 'Four or five coats? Why would you want to--'
He explained why you'd want to do that. Eventually, I realized that, one, it was reasonable price, and two, it was worth paying.
So, the guy comes to my house. First of all, he was just the most pleasant person. He was in his 70s, and he was really good at what he did. He knew it, but he wasn't annoying or arrogant about it. He just went about his business. He had a little--I want to say he had a transistor radio. I offered to put music on while he was staining my doors. He said, 'Oh, no. I've got my music.' He had a little set of ear plugs. He's in his world, doing his job for hours. There was some drying time, and he had to come back and put extra coats on.
And I have two doors. So, he did both doors. And, I can't tell you how much pleasure got from paying him. To see a craftsman, a person who is exceedingly skilled and diligent about what he does even to point--I just have to mention this because it was so beautiful. I was asking him--I think it was a question of there were a couple of nails, and it was a question of how, when you put the stain on.
He said, 'If you put it on too soon,' he explained to me that your thumbprint will, when you touch it, the oil from your fingers will color that, and it will be stained and discolored. You'll never be able to fix it.
I'm thinking, 'Oh, come on.' But then it turned out I think it's true.
So, there's all this nuance of small things, but his devotion to his craft was inspiring. And I think he took great pride in it. I know he took great pride in it.
And I think that opportunity for dignified work--compared to what I do, which is, I mean, I'm proud of it. I like what I do. I think I'm pretty good at it. But, it's not the only way to serve your fellow human beings. It's not the only way to have a meaningful life. And we've turned this race to test scores and grades and college prep into a competition, as you say, only a few people by definition can excel at; and such a small corner of the human experience.
Robert Lerman: Well, we need a diversity of people in their capabilities. I'll tell you a story about a German friend of mine. He's sort of a bit of my mentor. He told me that when somebody becomes a Doctor in a small town in Germany, people don't really pay much attention. But if somebody becomes a Meister, which is that next step--you first become a journeyman where you've completed your apprenticeship--but then it's like the Ph.D. of that occupation--
Russ Roberts: Craftsmanship--
Robert Lerman: when you become a Meister, your picture is in the paper. Everybody in the village knows about it. And, that level of respect is just prominent. So, absolutely, it's something to admire.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's something we've lost.
Robert Lerman: Maybe I admire it especially because I'm not very good with my hands.
Russ Roberts: Right. Yeah. No. That was partly my--as you can tell from my story, that's partly my reaction is--to say it's useful is to understate it dramatically. When a good plumber comes into your house and understands what needs to be done and does it well, it's--'exhilarating' might be a little strong, but maybe not.
Robert Lerman: Yeah. Well, you know, I visited a program in Baltimore that had a training facility. The training facility was for the apprentices, but it was also for plumbers to come back to upgrade further. So, for example, what you need for pipe-fitting in a hospital is far more elaborate than what you might need in a normal home or even an office building.
So, there are a lot of these things that, if you're not into occupations, you miss. If you're only into degrees, even graduate degrees, you certainly miss a lot.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Robert Lerman. Robert, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Robert Lerman: Thank you.