Apprenticeships—Why Can’t They Start in High School?

Friday, November 17, 2017
Shannon Gilkey

My high school and college agriculture programs taught wonderful courses in welding—courses that were grounded in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and of course, vocational practice. As valuable as these classes were to earning a degree in agriculture science, neither could compare to the practical knowledge and experience I gained while working for my dad’s welding business.

Studying under my father – who had more than 15 years’ experience as a welder, machinist, small business owner, and coal miner – provided a deeper, more personalized learning experience than any classroom could. Lesson plans included one-on-one training, loads of individual practice, and on-demand evaluation of technique and tensile strength. The certificate for completion, while not course credit, became whether the fifth-wheel-king-pin (i.e., the steel pin that links a semi-truck to its coal-hauling-trailer) held its strength under several hundred thousand pounds of pressure. Equally important, I acquired Dad’s approval. Less important, I got a raise to $2.50 per hour, which was the going rate for a welder’s son at the time, or so I was told.

I’ve been thinking about that experience during National Apprenticeships Week, and about Iris Palmer’s recent suggestion to combine “the two hottest topics in higher education: free college and apprenticeships.” It’s not just a fascinating concept–to include work-based training among the tuition-free pathways available to students after high school. It’s common sense and should be employed through a joint effort between K-12 and higher education.

Palmer is right to suggest that coupling free college initiatives and apprenticeships holds opportunity for (1) students to earn a wage and college credit, (2) stronger alignment between what’s occurring in the labor market and the classroom and (3) the possibility for expansion into careers outside traditional skilled trades, like welding. It stops short at leveraging K12-postsecondary collaboration.

Let’s bring Palmer’s notion more meaningfully down into K-12. Through a collaborative effort, K-12 and postsecondary systems should leverage this model as a pathway to engage students in the postsecondary process much earlier. Akin to early college programs and dual credit/enrollment strategies, pre-apprenticeships in high school can provide earlier access to postsecondary degree requirements. These programs—expanding across the country in South Carolina, Colorado, Kentucky and many other states—provide a deeper technical dive than the internships and job-shadowing that make up most work-based learning to date. Credit earned through these programs can count toward future postsecondary coursework and training, allowing students to get a leg up on the next step in their path to employment.

As districts and states move to expand these opportunities for students, let’s also make sure that we are not losing focus on the quality of programming, delivery of training, and perhaps most importantly, access for traditionally underserved student populations. Education Strategy Group found in our work with states in the New Skills for Youth initiative and our recommendations for improving career readiness in Montgomery County Public Schools that the quality of these offerings and their connection to students’ lives after high school play a fundamental role in diminishing any preconceived stigmas. When parents and students see these opportunities as pathways into postsecondary education and training, and ultimately, a good job, engagement increases and everyone benefits.

I successfully learned how to weld because I was lucky enough to be able to pair my formal education with real-world application at home. Unfortunately, for most of my peers, that opportunity did not exist. Ultimately, this is an equity issue – we cannot leave it to personal connections to ensure students get on-the-job training. And we cannot focus on pre-apprenticeship opportunities only in our major urban centers and wealthy suburbs. We need a coherent system to provide opportunities to all students that are aligned across K-12, postsecondary education and the workforce.

Pre-apprenticeships are about exposure. Not everyone who works alongside a professional welder is going to become one themselves—I didn’t. But I bet some of my high school classmates would have if they’d been given the same chance.