In a world in which millions of people are unemployed while many employers complain that they cannot find qualified workers, something is obviously out of balance. One of those issues is the match between the supply of and demand for skills. (OECD, PIAAC, 2016)
Over the past week, we have attempted to provide policy makers with a clearer picture of U.S. workers with apprenticeships, using the PIAAC data. The Department of Labor’s registry now lists 21,000 programs with about 500,000 apprentices. However, the number of apprentices represents only 1.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. and is far short of the workforce’s demand. The PIAAC data show that individuals with apprenticeships are more likely to affirm the usefulness of their formal education and their abilities as life-long learners than their peers without, as well as more likely to learn from coworkers, develop communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills at work. To an extent, apprenticeship programs can promote a linkage between the skills provided by the education system and the needs of the labor market (OECD, 2017).
Not everyone decides to go to college after high school graduation. However, “Students in the United States are offered few feasible routes to middle-skill careers—jobs that require more education than a high school diploma but typically not a bachelor’s degree” (Selingo, 2017). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top five fastest growing occupations in the next decade (2016-26) will be solar photovoltaic (PV) installers, wind turbine service technicians, home health aides, personal care aides, and physician assistants. Except for physician assistant, which requires a Master’s degree, the typical entry-level education for the jobs is a high school diploma. On-the-job training plays a pivotal role in securing a job in these occupations. For instance, to become a wind turbine technician requires long-term on-the-job training; to become a solar PV installer requires moderate-term on-the-job training.
Based on our data analyses, we recommend that school leaders rethink how to enhance the literacy/numeracy skills of students in K-12 education and better inform students about career pipelines in the context of economies that are increasingly knowledge based. In the latest issue of ASBJ (American School Board Journal), Michelle Healy described how Jefferson County Public Schools (Kentucky) equipped students with tools and knowledge for success after graduation from high school. Literacy, numeracy, communication and collaboration are some of the key skills emphasized by Carmen Coleman, a former school superintendent from Kentucky. Looking at the position descriptions of some fast-growing jobs (Table 1), we can readily find some cognitive skills that students need to acquire from K-12 education. Among those skills are “read blueprints to determine locations, positions, and dimensions,” “read diagrams and follow state and local building codes,” “measure,” and “collect data for testing or research and analysis.”
If apprenticeship programs are considered “deep, rich learning opportunities,” policy makers may try to make such programs available to every student. The current administration is making efforts to fund and promote apprenticeships, as well as expand access to apprenticeships through various institutions including secondary schools. The Presidential Executive Order Expanding Apprenticeships in America (2017) states that federally funded education and workforce development programs “must do a better job matching unemployed American workers with open jobs, including the 350,000 manufacturing jobs currently available.” This executive order recognizes and reinforces apprenticeships as an effective approach to linking schools to the job market.