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April 20, 2018

More Apprenticeships could narrow the ‘Skills Gap’


US : The skills gap remains a real concern. Just weeks ago, in early June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, reported a record six million job openings across the country, even as hiring slowed—meaning there are plenty of jobs around, but not enough qualified candidates to fill them.

The key question facing public officials is always how best to spend valuable public resources. For a case in point, consider the following. The numbers may not be exact, but they tell an important story and raise troubling questions about public priorities.

Our starting point is North Carolina, one of the states that stands front and center in America’s manufacturing revival. Tarheel taxpayers have been spending about $500,000 per year on a statewide apprenticeship program intended to prepare recent high school graduates for skilled jobs. Some 4,700 to 5,000 students currently participate, meaning the state is investing a little over $100 a year per student in the program.

In stark contrast to the half a million dollars being spent annually on the apprenticeship program, the fiscal year 2016-17 operating budget for the North Carolina state university system was more than $2.5 billion. Total enrollment at the system’s 16 university campuses is around 225,000 students, full and part time. Tuition, gifts, grants and endowment earnings offset some of the costs. But at the end of the day, according to a recent report from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, state taxpayers are subsidizing UNC students to the tune of about $17,000 a year per student.

I’m not suggesting this is a bad investment. But is a 22-year-old recent college grad with a bachelor’s degree in communications studies, general psychology or political science—three of the most popular majors at UNC, Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship school—really worth that much more to North Carolina’s future than a skilled machinist or electrician?

In all fairness, of course, the 58-campus community college system also has a healthy budget: more than $1.3 billion in FY 2016-17. But the system serves about 735,000 students, more than three times the number in the university system, at about half the cost.

To return to the apprenticeship program, The Martin Center’s Alex Contarino explains: It works in an interesting way.

“Students indicate their interest in the program and desired career path, and ApprenticeshipNC matches them with a suitable company. Together, along with a local community college, the student and company arrange a class and work schedule,” with the company paying students for the work they do during their on-the-job apprenticeships and picking up the tab for their community college classes.

As the Raleigh area’s Wake Technical Community College explains on its website, the program requires “a minimum of 2,000 hours of work experience … and 144 hours of classroom instruction per year,” with most of the apprenticeships lasting four to five years, though some are shorter.

“If there is one knock against ApprenticeshipNC,” Contarino concedes, “it is that …only about 50% of participants continue after their first year.” Yet, he notes, even among those who stop participating, “Approximately 70% had steady employment within five years [and] 40% also went on to complete more advanced degrees and certificate programs.”

Many other states have similar apprenticeship programs, of course, as does the federal government, which apparently has many. But there’s no really big push, locally or nationwide, to expand the ranks—certainly nothing on the scale of the “college for everyone” push that’s been taking place for several decades now.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, which keeps track of the various apprenticeship programs and maintains a database, reported that a paltry 505,000 individuals nationwide were participating in apprenticeship programs in fiscal 2016. By comparison, the number of students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities in 2016 was 13.3 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

It seems to me that apprenticeship programs are both underappreciated and underfunded. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be a 26-to-one enrollment differential between U.S. colleges and universities and post-secondary apprenticeship programs. And six million job openings wouldn’t need to be filled. For our own good, it’s time to close the gap.

Note : Above write-up is based on the article of Harold L. (Hal) Sirkin published in Forbes.com

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