The Future of Education
The Future of Education
Beyond ‘College or Bust’: Apprenticeship as a Postsecondary Path to Opportunity

Beyond ‘College or Bust’: Apprenticeship as a Postsecondary Path to Opportunity


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Ryan Craig joined me once again to talk about his new book Apprentice Nation—this time as a part of Class Disrupted with Diane Tavenner. As a school leader who for years led the charge for college-for-all but has changed her mind in recent years, Diane had lots of questions for Ryan about how K–12 educators should think about apprenticeships and alternative pathways for high school students.

Given I’ve recently sent out a transcript of another conversation with Ryan, rather than produce the whole transcript from Diane and my conversation with him, below are some key excerpts from the conversation that I think are illuminating. And, as always, subscribers can watch the video or listen to the podcast.

I’m also thrilled to offer my paid subscribers a chance to win a copy of Ryan’s book, Apprentice Nation! Five lucky paid subscribers will get a free copy just by entering your information here. I’ll notify you if you win.

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Time Topic
2:45 Defining apprenticeship
5:49 The current state of apprenticeship in the U.S.
8:25 The role of apprenticeship in an increasingly automated world 
13:05 How K-12 educators can move away from the “college or bust” paradigm
16:22 Refuting claims that apprenticeship creates hierarchical post-secondary funnels
18:02 Reducing operational obstacles to accessing apprenticeship  
28:33 Apprenticeship’s opponents 
32:49 The lack of incentives for employers to develop apprenticeships 
35:23 Achieving scale 
37:20 Reasons for optimism 
40:00 Book and show recommendations 

Diane Tavenner:

Ryan, what you are sharing is I've spent the last 20 plus years in K-12 education in high schools, really for decades, focusing on ensuring all of our students were accepted to a four-year college. I thought that was the right thing to do and the thing that was going to lift them, especially serving mostly first-generation college-going students. And then what you described is what we started to see in our own data, that if they made it through [college], they were underemployed on the back end, they were carrying significant amounts of debt, and depending on what program or major they went into, it really mattered [for] what their prospects looked like outside. And many of these students don't have the social networks to gain the experience that you're talking about as being so valuable. And so I guess one of the questions I have as a recovering college-for-all K-12 educator is what do you think people like me should be doing right now in the high school space, particularly what are the top one or two things that we could do to start shifting in the right direction?

Ryan Craig:

Yeah, well, look, I think CTE and career discovery at the high school and even middle school level are a casualty of this sort of college-for-all mentality. We've really allowed it to wither on the vine. I did a piece a couple of months ago about the fact that the sort of AP honors industrial complex, with its higher GPA, college is the only pathway. You sort of have to take those courses and you have to take that path, which leaves no room for…CTE kind of withers on the vine in that case. But I get it right. If there aren't alternatives for your college, then what's the point of career discovery at the high school? So it is sort of a chicken or the egg problem. I'm very focused on how do we build out that post high school infrastructure of earn-and-learn pathways so we can kind of get to where we are in the UK now, which is, this last fall, for the first time, graduating high school students in the UK could look at the UCAS portal, which is kind of the common app of the UK, and see listed alongside all the university programs, all the apprenticeship options. It's in one portal, in one place, and they can look with their guidance counselor and they can say, “Okay, here are some real earn and learn options that I might pursue.” Here are some tuition-based options I might pursue. So that's the ultimate goal. But I think beginning to work on CTE and career discovery. I did a profile of the superintendent in Winchester, Virginia that Ted Dintersmith introduced me to, who just is doing an incredible job of really elevating CTE and almost making it mandatory that every student has to pursue a CTE pathway. And so I think then we need to prime the pump both on the supply side and the demand at the high school level.


Diane: So, Ryan, I want to stay with that just for a moment, because I think part of the narrative that we often hear when people are skeptical of the non-four-year college pathway is - and I can't count the number of times I've been on a panel with college presidents, of course, being the ones to say this -  “Well, the people that are clamoring the loudest for alternatives to college are those who are going to send their kids to college.” And so they have this real skepticism that it's for them, but not for me. Why are you relegating them, if you will, to something lower? In Apprentice Nation, you make a pretty compelling counterargument around the data on this, but I'd love you to just walk us through that a little bit more. And part of this, I acknowledge, is we only have 500,000 apprenticeships in this country. There's not really a dataset in this country to sort of play with, but walk us through it.

Ryan Craig: 

Yeah, look, I just think that's inaccurate. I mean, I hear every week from a charter school organization that is focused on how do we help build new, how do we facilitate pathways, how do we build a sort of plus-two transition program to something other than college? Because like you, Diane, they see their students graduating and either not completing or completing and graduating into underemployment, so it's clearly not working for everyone. So, I don't buy that argument.

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Diane: We had a group of interns in my new company, and so we actually asked them to do this little experiment. They're high school students, and we gave them 100 apprenticeships in California that theoretically they should be eligible for as they graduate from high school. The apprenticeships are open to 18+, and we asked them to try to figure out how they could apply to and if they had a chance at these apprenticeships. And so of the 100…It was mind boggling. This is not a friendly process at all. They go to the website. There's usually like a phone number or an email that they have to call or email, just a cold email that they have to send. So they email 100. They only get responses from a third of 100. Out of 100, only 30 responses. And many of them were redirecting them back to look at the website, which is circular because the website says to email these people. And when they actually talked to people, they were often told “It says 18, but we don't really want 18 year olds.” And so I'm just curious. It seems like we have a lot of work to do, so much work.

Ryan Craig: Experience, so many things there. So, first of all, I don't know what list they were using, but if they were to use the most authoritative list out there, which is the federal Department of Labor Rapids database of registered apprenticeship programs, they'd be in for a disappointment because I use that database as the basis for the appendix in my book, which is a directory of apprenticeship programs outside the building and construction trades. Not to say that those aren't good apprenticeships, but the point of the book is: “We're actually doing okay in the building trades. How do we expand apprenticeships beyond the building trades?” So there are about 6000 apprenticeship programs in the US in the Rapids database that are not in the construction trades. And so I asked the question, well, how many of those are actually real? Meaning where I could apply for a job as an apprentice tomorrow and I'd be considered because they're actually hiring apprentices. And so we went through that whole list and of those 6000, only 200 are real. The rest of them are what I call paper apprenticeship programs, which are primarily a kind of relic of how we've been funding apprenticeship programs at the federal level. So one reason we're doing so poorly is that the federal government, while they've increased apprenticeship funding over the last decade and they've been actually trying to fund intermediaries, which is one of the key points of the book, which is that employers don't do these things on their own. Colleges don't do them on their own. They're usually set up and run by intermediary groups. Like in Germany, it's chambers of commerce that do most of the work of setting up and running these programs. In the building trades, it's unions who are doing it. So the question is, who are those intermediaries going to be? So, the Department of Labor has tried to identify and fund intermediaries, but of course they've been funding groups that are really good at applying for Department of Labor grants, namely workforce boards and community colleges who get these five or $10 million grants. And then here's what they do. They develop the curriculum for the formal training, the related technical instruction, RTI component of the apprenticeship. They register the program and then they sit on their hands and wait for an employer to come along and say, “Wow, if only I could find curriculum for the RTI, I'd launch my own apprenticeship program.” But of course, that's the easy part of apprenticeship. The hard part is convincing an employer to hire and pay a worker who's not going to be productive for a period of time. And all the other stuff too, the mentoring and the recruiting and serving as the employer of record, all that stuff. So as a result, that's how you get from 6000 down to 200. But then even if they're reaching the 200 who are actually hiring you're absolutely right. Apprenticeships are not designed sort of post-high school right now, largely, I think, just because there's so few of them. So every time you actually launch an apprentice, a cohort of apprentices, and I can say this is at achieve, what we do is we buy companies and sectors where there's a talent gap in tech and healthcare, and we build apprenticeship programs into those companies so they become talent engines for their talent starved sectors. And I can tell you that every time we launch a cohort, we have 100, 200, 300 applicants for every seat in the cohort, which is so much as we would like to make them available to 18-year-olds. It's hard for an 18-year-old to compete with a 23- or 24-year-old who's applying for that apprenticeship program. We're probably going to hire that 23- or 24-year-old. And this is one of my pet peeves, which is that if you talk to the philanthropies, the big philanthropies who are involved in apprenticeship today, and I'm not sure, well, maybe I'll name names. Gates Foundation, they actually don't care about apprenticeship. Broadly, all they care about is youth apprenticeship, which is for kids in high school, which sounds good, but the hard part is, if you can't convince an employer to hire a 24-year-old apprentice, you're never going to convince them to hire a 16- or 17-year-old who's still in high school. That's like an order of magnitude more difficult to do. And so we need to focus on building the apprenticeship infrastructure we need for regular role apprenticeships before we begin focusing on what are called youth apprenticeship programs. So, yeah, the system is not set up today post-high school. And a big reason is we're just not funding it like in the UK. At their peak, they were spending four or five billion pounds a year on apprenticeship, which, based on the size of the US economy, would be more like $40 billion a year. We've been spending less than one hundredth of that. So, if we've been spending $400 million a year, that's even a smaller fraction of what we spend on a tuition-based post-secondary education. That's one thousandth what we spend on. So it's one hundredth of what we should be spending on apprenticeship. It's one thousandth of what we do spend. And if you compare the funding that an apprentice receives, the public funding that an apprentice receives, compared to a college student, for every dollar of taxpayer support that apprentice is receiving, a college student receives $50. Those ratios are just way off. Every other developed country is like an order of magnitude or more. In the UK, it's two orders of magnitude higher on earn and learn an apprenticeship than we are. And what does that do? Well, it makes a big difference because it allows intermediaries to market and sell apprenticeship programs to employers, which is what's needed. So, in the UK, you have apprenticeship service providers like Multiverse who can go to big companies and say, we'll set up and run an apprenticeship program for you. And it's totally turnkey. All you need to do is put this apprentice on your payroll at the reduced apprentice wage. And that sounds pretty good, but everything that Multiverse does is covered by the government here. Multiverse does the same thing. When they go to a US employer, they say, oh, but it's going to cost you $15,000 per apprentice in program fees because there's no funding associated with apprenticeship. And so you may say, well, what about the $400 million that we're spending? That's not going to intermediaries like Multiverse. It's going to community colleges and workforce boards who aren't currently building apprenticeship programs. Part of the problem is that we viewed apprenticeship as just another workforce development or training program, and we've lumped it in with all these other training programs, most of which are pretty ineffective, and other countries don't do that. Other countries have a separate funding mechanism for apprenticeship because they recognize they're different, they're jobs. They're jobs first, and they start with an employer willing to hire an apprentice. So a lot of what the book is about is sort of policy fixes for this. Unfortunately, a month after the book came out, the Department of Labor came out with their fancy new apprenticeship regulations, which is 800 pages of new hoops that employers would have to jump through in order to register an apprenticeship program with no incentives whatsoever to do so, which is just the opposite of what needs to happen. We need to streamline apprenticeship registration, focus on the things that matter. Is it a good job? Does it have career progression associated with it and actually provide funding for it?

Diane Tavenner: 

I read your recent piece on those regulations, and I will confess that I had a moment where I was like, oh my gosh, this feels exactly like my charter school experience, where we started in the right place, where we create schools that serve kids, name the outcome that you're going to get, and that's what you're held accountable to. But over time, we have been regulated and reregulated and back to sort of the old system. And I was reading your piece about this 800-page set of regulation. I was like, this feels exactly like what I experienced as someone who was trying to do this in the charter sector. And it made me wonder. There's always interest groups. And look, I was reading through what you summarized. I get why they want people to do all these protective things and whatnot, not for bad reasons, but you have to balance the risk and you have to be thoughtful. Who are the blockers who's contributing to these 800 pages?

Ryan Craig: 

Yeah, these are building and construction unions who would very much like to keep apprenticeship as their own little sort of private thing for the most part. And it's bureaucrats who have never worked in the private sector and actually don't know what's involved in convincing an employer to hire an apprentice. There aren't really…I mean, part of the problem is, up until last year, with the creation of Apprenticeships for America, which is this new trade association of apprenticeship intermediaries, there had been no voice for employers of apprentices. So we're working hard on that, but that's what's necessary, and we need to get the folks like the business roundtable and Chamber of Commerce in this discussion. So I'm confident that these regulations are not going to have the force of law as currently proposed, but they're just going the wrong direction. So there's a lot of work to do here. And it's so important to think of a country where we could have as many earn and learn options as we have tuition-based options. I think that it's a big reason why we have such social and political sort of discontent. You have almost half the country who sort of sees this bright, shining digital economy, but feels like these jobs are out of reach because they're told that they need to run the gauntlet of a four year degree, which can be five or six years in many cases, and with no guarantee of any employment outcome. And they just feel like it's unaffordable and unrealistic and life's going to get in the way, so why bother? And as I toured around the country talking about my book in the fall, I would start my talks with talking about what I call the song of the summer last summer, which was Rich Men North of Richmond, by Oliver Anthony, where basically he's complaining about his crappy job. And that's sort of what they. The only jobs available are these bad jobs that are breaking my back with no career progression available. And we need to address that. And it's such an obvious political benefit for the Democratic Party. I don't understand why the Democrats don't become the party of earn and learn and apprenticeship. They're not going to lose support among the university educated at this point. But we desperately need to support it, and obviously that's where the other side is getting their momentum from.

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