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Burgeoning Youth Apprenticeship Movement Is Both an Opportunity and a Challenge for K-12 Schools

Michael Nutter

December 5, 2018

Youth apprenticeships can be a powerful way for public schools to prepare young Americans for tomorrow’s workplaces, but they’re not without their challenges.

In September 2015, Edison Research created the Economic Anxiety Index to track the stress Americans feel as a result of their personal financial situations. Combining factors related to individuals’ savings and expenses, job security, and general anxiety, the Index peaked at 36.12 (on a 0 to 100 scale) in the month prior to the 2016 presidential election.

Since then, the Index has trended steadily downward, but demographic groups including African-Americans, women, and, especially, young people remain highly anxious about their financial futures. As of Edison’s latest polling, 18- to 24-year-old Americans’ economic anxiety is twice as high as 65- to 74-year old Americans’ economic anxiety.

In many ways, this is entirely understandable. Gone are the days when a high school diploma and a strong work ethic were all one needed to slot into a well-paying, lifelong career. Recent upticks in national high school graduation rates are certainly encouraging, but many young Americans are still struggling to the identify the right next steps.

In fact, of the roughly two-thirds of high school graduates who choose to enroll in college, only 55 percent end up earning a bachelor’s degree within six years. What’s more, 71 percent of these graduates leave school burdened with an average student loan debt of nearly $30,000 — and no guarantee of gainful employment.

Tilting the odds in young Americans’ favor has proven to be quite the challenge, but a growing number of both public and private stakeholders have started to express support for a solution that has long been as readily available as it has been underutilized: youth apprenticeships.

America’s Inadequate Youth Apprenticeship Infrastructure

In countries like Germany and Switzerland, over half of secondary students participate in some sort of apprenticeship program as a stepping stone to either college or the workforce. In these systems, apprenticeships are as integral to the educational process as instruction in reading, writing, and math. The same cannot be said of the U.S. education system.

While the approximately 500,000 active apprentices in the U.S. amount to a rate of apprenticeship 125 percent higher than the 20-year annual average, many of these apprentices have already been part of the workforce for a number of years — most American apprentices are closer to their 30’s than to high school. Further, the vast majority of these positions are concentrated in fields with strong traditions of apprenticeship like construction and manufacturing. According to advocacy groups like the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA), this needn’t — and shouldn’t — be the case.

As PAYA points out, “Youth apprenticeship allows students to complete high school, start their postsecondary education at no cost, get paid work experience alongside a mentor, and start along a path that broadens their options for the future.”

Though their particulars may vary based on industry or locale, youth apprenticeships typically pair paid, supervised work with related classroom instruction. Apprentices also often take ongoing, skills-based assessments that can be rolled into an industry-specific professional credential or postsecondary course credit. PAYA suggests that the most effective apprenticeships involve two days of on-the-job work and three days of classroom instruction per week, and are geared toward high school juniors and seniors.

Despite their relative scarcity, research shows that most Americans have a positive opinion of youth apprenticeship programs. Not only do 83 percent of Americans support increasing government funding for apprenticeship education programs, but a plurality of 37 percent agree that apprenticeships are the best way for young people to prepare for a career.

States including Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Ohio have seized on this broad-based popularity and introduced a variety of youth apprenticeship programs in recent years, some of which are state-funded, some of which are privately-funded, and some of which are funded by innovative public/private youth apprenticeship partnerships.

Youth Apprenticeships: The Good and the Bad

For individual public school districts, the nascent youth apprenticeship movement represents both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, apprenticeships ensure students leave high school with the skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s workplaces — an outcome that should arguably always be educators’ foremost priority. Further, by partially shifting the instructional burden to students’ professional mentors, apprenticeship programs relieve pressure from America’s overburdened public school system.

On the other hand, apprenticeships inject a great deal of complexity into schools’ recordkeeping processes. In Ohio, a district’s funding is determined not by the number of students it enrolls, but by the fraction of each enrolled student’s time that’s actually spent on campus. In short, if a student spends two days per week apprenticing at an investment bank or on a construction site, their school is only entitled to 60 percent of their per-student funding allocation.

As youth apprenticeship programs become more common, keeping track of students’ comings-and-goings will become an overwhelming task, which is where the Percent of Time Module for Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform will become invaluable.

District Treasurers and EMIS staff can use the Percent of Time Module to track where each of their students is throughout the day, check their attendance data for mistakes, and, if necessary, find the right person to remedy any inconsistencies. This allows EMIS stakeholders to rest easy knowing that the records they submit to state authorities will be both entirely accurate and fully compliant with Ohio law.

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