Bryan Caplan  

1>0, and Other Thoughts on Apprenticeships

Really???... John Mueller on Port Security...
Last night I heard Robert Lerman of American University make the case for apprenticeships as an alternative to standard academic education.  He got considerable pushback from the audience.  Some of the leading complaints:

1. Unlike standard academic education, which prepares you for a wide variety of careers, apprenticeships only prepare you for one career.

2. Apprenticeships may sound like a good idea, but they've failed the market test in the U.S. labor market.

3. Institutional barriers make it very difficult for the U.S. to use apprenticeships.

My responses:

1. A standard academic education prepares you for a "wide variety of jobs"?  That's wildly optimistic.  It's closer to the truth to say that a standard academic education prepares you for zero jobs.  This is clearest for K-12 education in bad school districts, but also holds for most college majors.  Even many majors that sound "vocational" prepare students for occupations with very few openings - see psychology and journalism.  The smart slogan: It's better to start preparing students for one career than keep preparing them for no career at all.

2. Government spends almost a trillion dollars a year on standard academic education, and you claim that apprenticeships have "failed the market test"?!  Apprenticeships would be far more common if government didn't subsidize the competition to death.  Imagine if we actually voucherized existing education spending and let students spend their vouchers to subsidize their own apprenticeships.  I say apprenticeships would become common almost overnight.

3. There's no need to invoke "institutional barriers" when standard education gets almost a trillion dollars a year in subsidies.  It makes a lot more sense to blame public opinion, which recoils in egalitarian horror at the idea of a "two-tier" system where bad students learn a trade and good students go to college.  The end result, of course, is that bad students don't learn a trade, don't go to college, and - as Charles Murray reminds us - become bums and criminals at shocking rates.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Wallace Forman writes:

Market Test? I'm a bit confused. Isn't the real problem that (unpaid) apprenticeships would possibly be found illegal under minimum wage laws?

Ken B writes:

The current situation is so absurd that you can see amusing ironies here. BC is by any reasonable standards an elitist (and professedly so). Yet here he is advocating something will lead to a greater 'equality of outcome' because there are many who could succeed at a practical apprenticeship yet would fail in an academic program, and is also less elitist in values, emphasizing the worth of skilled work even if it doesn't involve books. Bryan is being more meaningfully egalitarian here than the snobs decrying him.

On exactly this topic I strongly recommend the documentary Note By Note about the making of a piano.

Collin writes:

I am surprised there was such pushbacks from the audience and it does seem to be the audience is rather shortsighted. The German economy has done well with such programs and teaching technical skills was much more of norm of 1950s and 1960s High School. Due to changing economics, there is a lot of credence to these ideas. Several questions:

1) How much or little apprenticeships be paid? If the amount is very little, I suspect the company and apprentor would not care to make it a success. Look all the comments from David Henderson's free internship.

2) Would this be along with regular High School or even college coursework? Frankly for the younger generation I would recommend getting both a blue (technical) and white collar (business) skills for future career. Forget family until you are over 25 and no kids until 30. (Sorry on that point.)

2) These programs were part of High Schools in the 1970 - 1980s? I went to 80's High School and these programs were considered a bit of joke at that time. Why would they be better for today economy?

3) With so much labor supply (include foreign workers here) why would corporations participate in the programs? I suspect one reason why the programs were successful in 50s and 60s were:
3a) There was not excess labor for those 20 years and companies wanted to get good young workers. (Basically the Branch Rickey model where is companies now follow the professional football model.)
3b) Companies and business were a lot more local and it was a lot of goodwill in participating in this program. Now national companies hand giant checks to the United Way.


Glen writes:

"The end result, of course, is that bad students don't learn a trade, don't go to college..."

Or they do go to college, run up a lot of debt (and/or cost the taxpayers a lot of money), but never graduate. The number of people in this category is huge.

Tom West writes:

Pardon my ignorance, but in an apprentice system, what is the incentive for the "trade masters" to participate in the program and train their future competition?

BZ writes:

Tom: Seriously? Apprenticeships exist now, and serve sometimes as a train-to-hire system, and other times as a cheap-labor solution. Either way, it's win-win for both sides. As for grumbling from employees training their competition? They can always quit and go somewhere with less foresight.

BZ writes:

P.S. for Tom's question:
I might have thought about the competition angle in the past, but since then I've learned economics. If I train more programmers to compete with me, yes I'll make less money, but there will be more software, of more variety, and it will be cheaper. As a computer geek, I want to live in that world.

soonerliberty writes:

I'm currently working in Germany, which has an apprenticeship system. Based on comments from those in it, I would make the following points:

1) The apprenticeship idea is a good market solution, but Germany has almost eliminated its effectiveness by requiring too many licenses and certificates. It ends up being a burden instead of a conduit to landing a good job. So, the licensing and certification processes are the problem.

2) Germans often complain about the rigidity of their system. Once you're on a certain path in the education system, it is almost impossible to get off the path. Kids must decide at the ages of 10-12 what they will do for the rest of their lives. This is incredibly discriminatory against late bloomers.

Overall, the idea is a good one, but its implementation by the state is bad and leads to cartelization. Sound familiar?

Joe Cushing writes:

We still have them. They happen right after college because college does not prepare you for a job very well. One can have a master's degree in finance, for example, and only qualify for the most basic of tasks in the finance industry. Much training is needed after college to be competent. Employers know this, which is why new grads have such a high unemployment rate right now. Employers are unwilling to invest in training new grads when there are plenty of experienced hires out there.

Tom West writes:

BZ, at least in traditional trades, doesn't the training come from the master tradesman and not the employer of the tradesmen? Hence while it might be in the interest of a business, the actual training has to come from master.

At least a long time ago, it was the master that reaped the economic benefits of the apprentice's cheap labor. Is that still the case?

As for other programmers, I'm not certain the competition for jobs is as intense as it is in carpentry, plumbing, electricians, etc.

Colin writes:


In my experience masters don't see apprentices as future competition. They see them as manual labour.

My 20 year old brother in law is currently an electrical apprentice. He spends most of his days pulling wire, wiring simple switches... Tasks a 40 year old journeyman doesn't want to do.

Tom West writes:


One other question, for my curiosity. I assumed that the apprenticeship actually includes a lot of on-the-job explicit training by the master. Is this actually the case, or is it more simply work experience and what you happen to pick up?

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