|German apprentice steelmaker|
Perhaps for that reason, I was programmed to go to college from an age earlier than I can remember. It was a matter of faith. I never questioned it -- never felt the need to. So, it seems odd to me that some people are questioning the value of a college degree.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article (Education Slowdown Threatens U.S. ) summarizing the studies of two Harvard economists. Professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have calculated the average years of schooling for native born Americans since 1876. Today, the average 30 year old has only 8 months more education than their parents. This contrasts to 1980 when the gap was about 2 years. The Journal posits that this factoid does not bode well for our nation. After all, college grads have fared pretty well during this extended down turn with an unemployment rate of 4.2%, about half of the rate for those with only a High School diploma.
|From the Wall Street Journal|
We all know about Germany, right? It is the economic engine of Europe. It is highly industrialized, produces great manufactured products and runs a trade surplus of about 15 Billion Euros per year. So, if a college degree is so important, how does Germany do it?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in Germany’s apprenticeship program. The tradition of apprenticeship in Europe goes back to the Middle Ages. It is embedded in German society, driven by industry demand and put to good use by high tech manufacturers. The “dual education” system combines on the job training with classroom vocational instruction. Young Germans can choose among 356 occupations including medical assistant, industrial management or optician. It is also a government program.
In this country, ‘A’ students go to Harvard, MIT or Stanford if they can afford it. If not, they may have the opportunity to attend great public universities like the University of Michigan, Indiana University or the University of California at Berkeley.
But, what about the ‘B’ students and ‘C’ students? Many are getting business degrees at lesser schools. Is there value to that approach?
Early in my career, I worked at Citicorp and Goldman Sachs. We hired the best and brightest from the top business schools including those mentioned above. They were management trainees and were paid very well. Smaller businesses couldn’t compete with those compensation packages.
In a small company, you need people with experience, not trainees. So, who will hire the ‘B’ and ‘C’ students? What value is there in a business school degree from No Name University?
Here in Florida, the Dean of the business school at Nova Southeastern University, Dr. Michael Fields, created an innovative program – a Sales Institute -- requiring every business school student to attend at least four courses in sales and sales management. Dr. Fields met resistance from his most important constituents – the faculty and the students.
However, there was one group that loved the program – business owners. The idea that they might be able to hire people who were ready to produce revenue was very appealing. Faculty and students don’t see the value in the less intellectual skill base of the sales profession. Employers see dollar signs.
But you don’t go for an MBA to end up as an apprentice. And, that was the perception of Nova’s program.
But, what’s wrong with apprenticeships? What if we had an education system that provided the real world skills that industry demands?
In Albany, NY, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering was started with $1B provided by the state of NY and an additional $13B from industry. The college is educating Americans in nanotechnology used in the manufacture of computer chips and other miniaturized electronic devices. The college has created over 13,000 jobs in that rust belt city and promises to produce graduates with world class skills.
The US Department of Labor has created a program to support structured apprenticeships through the office of Education and Training. Reflecting the political reality of this country, the DOL uses funds that have been reallocated from other projects to support industry led efforts to create apprenticeships.
One example is the National Information Technology Apprenticeship System created by the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). NITAS took two years to develop and has a goal of training at least 7 million workers in the IT trades. The structure is noteworthy. The government sponsors the program but does not fully fund it, regulate it or make it mandatory. The industry set standards and participates voluntarily because it sees benefit in hiring workers who are more productive on Day One of employment.
The net is this. A better trained, more productive workforce will make it more attractive for free enterprise corporations to invest and create jobs in this country. These jobs will have higher wages than low skill service jobs. Higher wages increase demand for goods and services and grow the economy.
There has been much written about our broken public education system. And, indeed I agree with most of the criticisms. But, if you could fix the problem tomorrow for, say, all the third graders in America, we would still be 20 years away from feeling the economic impact. Apprenticeships can have an almost immediate impact and don’t require tax dollars to develop.
The ultimate question is whether initiatives that take us in this direction will encounter the same resistance that Dr. Fields encountered. Are Americans ready to have their children become apprentices rather than college grads?
Or, to put it another way, would my Dad have approved? Or, your Dad?