Balancing oversight and innovation

Tim Bradley, minister counselor for industry, science and education at the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C., outlines his country's apprenticeship system at a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

House lawmakers on Tuesday queried officials from a handful of countries about their lauded apprenticeship programs, covering a broad range of topics, from career preparation to the roles of the federal government and business and industry in such efforts.

The House Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee heard from education and training officials from Australia, Germany and Switzerland, who provided an overview of their national apprenticeship systems. Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee noted they were interested in providing government oversight of federally funded apprenticeships without stifling innovation among the programs.

In Switzerland — where two-thirds of youths age 16 embark on three- to four-year apprenticeships — more than $9 billion annually is invested in apprenticeships, said Simon Marti, head of SwissCore, a Swiss research and education office that works to help strengthen European knowledge institutions. Employers contribute about 60 percent of that amount, with cantons (Switzerland’s equivalent of states) covering 30 percent and the federal government 10 percent.

Members of the subcommittee were particularly interested in how to get more employers involved in apprenticeships and to scale such efforts. The panel members noted that it’s important to show employers that it’s in their self-interest to create such programs.

Germany has a higher graduation rate among its apprenticeships than students in higher education, said Silvia Annen, a senior researcher at the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training in Bonn, Germany. Part of the success is due to employers closely monitoring the progress of apprentices to ensure they succeed, she said.

Lawmakers also asked the panel members how their countries created apprenticeships for emerging industries. In Switzerland, employers that see a need talk with their industry associations, which approach the government to start a commission to explore a new field for apprenticeships. In Germany, there’s initially a focus on research to ensure there is a long-term demand to create apprenticeships in certain fields. Once that need and program is established, employers, trade organizations and government partner in promoting the program, Annen said.

Offering a wide array of apprenticeship options is part of Switzerland’s success, Marti said. It has apprenticeships in 230 fields, from lab technicians to musical instrument builders. Meanwhile, Australia’s apprenticeship system offers more than 500 occupational apprenticeships and traineeship pathways, including a digital apprenticeship program, open to anyone of working age.

Some similar challenges

Several lawmakers noted the perceived stigma that still surrounds career and technical education in the U.S., which includes apprenticeships. Too often in the U.S., students default to attending a four-year college only to determine after graduating that they are unhappy with their career choice, and usually return to college to train for another field, said Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin).

Each of the officials said their country’s apprenticeship systems are flexible enough so that students can opt for another career or continue to college. Annen noted that she was a bank clerk apprentice.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) said that providing students an affordable opportunity to learn in-demand skills for available jobs is critical, and not just in industries such as construction which have traditionally offered apprenticeships.

“We need earn-while-you-learn programs,” she said. “I don’t care what you call them.”

Several of the panel members noted that even in their countries, which have a long history of using apprenticeships, it is becoming more challenging to find apprentices as more students are opting for a four-year degree path.

The countries also struggle with balancing apprenticeships among genders, though they do a better job at it. In the U.S., about 7 percent of apprenticeships are held by women, compared to 25 percent in Australia and 37 percent in Germany, said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington). Annen noted that in Germany, women dominate in apprenticeships in fields traditionally associated with women employees, such as education and care services, though companies in fields such as information technology are trying to include more women among their apprentices, she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.