WASHINGTON- Cary James spent four years getting a degree in mechanical engineering from Boston University. But after a few years of working in her field, she quit and became an electrician apprentice.
The Obama administration Tuesday proposed a $2 billion Apprenticeship Training Fund as part of its 2017 budget proposal to fulfill the president’s 2014 pledge to double the number of apprentices in the United States before he leaves office. While common in Europe, apprenticeship has yet to catch on in the United States. Last year, less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. workforce was in an apprenticeship program, the Labor Department said.
This year, James became one of those approximately 450,000 apprentices.
“I spent quite a few years in a job I knew wasn’t for me,” James said Tuesday at a Center for American Progress briefing on apprenticeships. “It wasn’t related to my degree or what I wanted to do in life. I realized I needed to move away from a job and start looking for a career.”
Apprenticeship is a work training strategy that mixes on-the-job experience with classroom instruction. James attends biweekly classes to learn about the field, safe working practices and electrician etiquette. The technical skills however, James learns by working on multiple job sites with different supervisors every week.
“Everyone has different ways of doing the same job,” said James. “Working with multiple people on the same type of task gives me the opportunity to see what works best for me and gives me ways to improve my craft.”
Apprentices are paid while working and attending classes. According to the Department of Labor, the average starting wage for an apprentice is approximately $15 an hour. The agency has cracked down on unpaid internships through a strict interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, but Labor Assistant Secretary Portia Wu said the department is a proponent for increasing apprenticeships.
According to Georgetown University public policy professor Harry Holzer, apprenticeships haven’t taken off in the U.S. because they are centered around the middle-skill, middle-wage part of the market.
“Demand in this middle-skill market is arguably falling,” said Holzer. “There has been greater growth in the high-end and the low-ends of the wage and skill spectrum in terms of job creation.”
Holzer said the U.S. needs to boost the number of “new middle” jobs, which require significant post-secondary training like jobs in the service sector or IT, but said globalization, technology advancements and the outsourcing of jobs are impediments.
Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said it’s also tough to attract people to apprenticeships because there is a stigma associated with them compared with going to college or vocational school.
“In the minds of many people, manufacturing was something you settled for when you really couldn’t do anything else as a career,” he said. “Today’s career and tech ed classes are a far cry from granddad’s shop class. Manufacturing is a lot more sophisticated than putting tab A into slot B a thousand times a day.”
Beshear created several apprenticeship programs in his state, including the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education program, which matches 75 companies with apprentices, and Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky, which is aimed at graduating high school students.
Last year, the Department of Labor awarded $175 million to 46 applicants in its American Apprenticeship grant competition. The winners pledged to train more than 34,000 workers over the next five years in industries ranging from health care to advanced manufacturing and to work with partner companies to get them jobs.