How to Get More Plumbers

MACA: Make America Competent Again, Part 2

By David K. Shipler

The second in an occasional series

A great American paradox is playing out dramatically on the Texas stage following the destructive winter storm: millions are unemployed, and millions of skilled jobs are vacant. Texans cannot find enough plumbers, electricians, and other hands-on specialists to restore life to decent levels of comfort and safety. The state — and the country at large — simply does not have enough men and women trained in the panoply of manual professions needed to keep an advanced society running.

There is a solution to this, and it’s recognized by labor unions, employers, and economists. It fits the general proposition, which I heard some twenty years ago from a leading economist, Robert Lerman: If a good idea exists, he said, you can be sure that it is being tried by somebody somewhere in the United States.

And for more than those twenty years, Lerman has been on a campaign to expand an idea already proven in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere. It is the ancient institution of apprenticeship — not in the medieval form but in a modern combination of in-class study and on-the-job learning that enhance practical skills for Americans who do not finish four years of college.

The hard fact is that if you don’t go to college or, once there, don’t get a degree, you’re in danger of falling through a hole in the economy. Unless you’re a whiz kid like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, you’re likely to be lacking the skills necessary to sell your labor competitively in a free economy. You could end up in dead-end, underpaid jobs that can consign you to a life near or below the poverty line.

And you will not be alone. Although 90 percent of Americans over age 24 have completed high school, only about two-thirds go immediately to college, and 40 percent of them drop out. Especially vulnerable are the first in their families to attend college. Their drop-out rate is 89 percent. Lerman reports that just 22 percent of all students and 12 percent of black students who began community college in 2012 graduated within three years.

The hardship on families is evident. Less visible is the damage to the economy as a whole. It means a chronic mismatch between skills and positions, especially in technical fields. A 2015 survey found 84 percent of manufacturing executives reporting a shortage of talent, leaving 60 percent of production jobs unfilled. That thwarts business expansion, denies needed services, and in some cases propels jobs overseas.

There have always been apprenticeships to a degree, many run by labor unions in commercial (not residential) construction and in manufacturing. But manufacturing has declined, contributing to a reduction in union jobs, which now total just 6 percent of those in the private sector.

Over the years, social aspirations also shifted away from manual labor to “college-for-all,” the mantra of a country steeped in the national ethic of equal opportunity. Vocational schools and occupational classes in high schools came into disrepute as a tracking system that funneled teenagers from working-class families away from college, while channeling their wealthier peers into college prep courses.

Yet career academies focusing on particular industries have yielded benefits in the last fifteen to twenty years, Lerman noted. “I don’t think anybody had ever shown a negative impact of vocational education,” he said, “but it did get a bad reputation for shoving people aside. The education elite decided you should beef up academic courses in high school, and vocational courses declined.”

A new wind is now blowing. “College for all” has not been achieved. The cost of a liberal arts education has soared, and student loans are debilitating. The connection between a bachelor’s degree and a good job looks tenuous to more and more young people and their parents. The apprenticeship idea could be about to ride a growing wave of pragmatism, and Lerman in determined to help it along.

From his perch at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, he has pressed for increased federal funding for state agencies, training centers, and employers to support apprenticeships. He has compiled evidence on their effectiveness to persuade employers to launch programs. He has designed templates of skill standards that ease applications for government grants.

Just before the country was hit by the Covid pandemic, the federal Office of Apprenticeship reported about 550,000 registered apprenticeships in the civilian sector (and another 110,000 military apprenticeships), with an additional half million or so unregistered, operated informally by employers, Lerman estimates. Furthermore, the concept is gaining broader acceptance in fields beyond construction and manufacturing, such as health care and accounting.

Some programs coordinate with community colleges to combine the necessary academic work with hands-on training. Others operate their own training centers, and about 35 to 40 percent of registered apprenticeships involve unions, usually in joint union-management partnerships that are self-funded and require no government grants.

Some employers are leery of going in with unions out of concern “that if they have an apprenticeship program they’re more likely to become unionized,” Lerman said. And some unions object to financial support going to non-unionized companies.

Yet government money is necessary to much of the effort, both for training costs and apprentices’ wages. The Obama administration’s 2008–9 stimulus package did not include anything for apprenticeship, Lerman said, and he pressed for funding. By 2015, the annual budget for the federal Office for Apprenticeship in the Labor Department was $30 million, and under Trump went up to $150 to $200 million. “But it’s a drop in the bucket,” Lerman said.

If the United States put as much commitment into apprenticeships as the United Kingdom, he calculated, it would mean $8 to $9 billion annually, adjusted for population. With adequate investment, “England was able to scale their program. They have one thousand training companies all over the country. Each occupation gets government funding for offsite training and a bit for mentors.” In Switzerland, he reported, “95 percent of 25-year-olds have an occupational credential (70 percent through apprenticeship) and 25 percent hold bachelor’s degrees.”

Of course apprenticeship programs, like any other schooling or training, has its dropouts, which overall amount to 45 to 50 percent of enrollees, he noted. But the concept also appeals across the political aisle as a hand out and a hand up, rewarding work that justifies higher wages than the hourly minimums that federal and state governments impose.

Lerman is a man of more than tables and numbers. He understands the sense of dignity brought by a profession. “A good apprenticeship gives people a kind of identity, an occupational identity,” he said. “If you’re an electrician or a plumber or a maintenance person, and it embodies a lot of skills, which an apprenticeship program does, you can do things your neighbor can’t do. We’ve sort of lost that aspect of the job. A lot of people today have had no experience with the manual jobs, the factory jobs. They don’t know the complexities. People confront a different issue every single day. It’s more complicated than it seems.”

Here, then, our knowledge as a society outstrips our action. We know what has to be done. We just don’t do enough of it, at least not yet.

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.