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The new middle: BMW joins the apprenticeship renaissance

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I recently highlighted the rise of hands-on vocational training in educational institutions across the State of Colorado, wondering whether such developments might signal the beginning of an apprenticeship renaissance in the United States. Indeed, many private companies and industries are taking a similar approach, experimenting with a range of models for cultivating human capital in the modern age.

In South Carolina, for example, BMW is now expanding its apprenticeship program at one of its largest manufacturing plants. BMW currently trains about 35 workers per year at the facility in collaboration with local community colleges.

Anticipating growth for an upcoming production line, the company will need roughly 1,000 new workers over the next few years. Unfortunately, such labor is hard to come by, requiring a unique mix of “soft” and “hard” skills. “You need to function in a team environment with both robot and human co-workers,” says Ryan Childers, a manager at the BMW facility. “This requires electrical and mechanical training, often some algebra or statistics, and IT know-how. It’s a new level of being multiskilled.”

In the United States, apprenticeship programs are increasingly being recognized as a viable solution in select industries and occupations. “Apprenticeships, as some economists see them, have several features that could help address skill mismatch,” writes Helen Fessenden in a report for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. “They can ‘fast track’ workers (often from high school) to full-time employment in less time than a college education, as well as teach applied skills that are career-specific.”

According to Harry Holzer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, they also help train workers for “the new middle.” “You don’t need a college degree, but you do need something beyond high school,” he says. “The ‘old middle’ jobs in fields like traditional manufacturing and clerical work do not. And that’s where jobs are disappearing and wages are shrinking.”

But while such programs offer plenty of promise, significant obstacles remain. In her report, Fessenden summarizes the challenges to igniting these programs in the United States, whether political, economic, or otherwise. The most striking, however, is the resistance from the culture:

A bigger factor than finances, however, might be culture. In other countries, it’s more likely that college is seen as one option among many, and apprenticeships are considered a worthwhile route to middle-class employment. In the United States, parents are more likely to see college as a vital investment without considering other alternatives, including vocational training or apprenticeships, to place their children on a viable career track — a view that’s likely due in part to the persistent labor market advantages of a college degree. But for high school students who might not finish college for academic, financial, or other reasons — and who might drop out with debt but not the benefits of the degree — the apprentice route could be another alternative toward gainful employment. BMW’s [Ryan] Childers [manager of the Scholars program] agrees and says he sees this play out frequently when he meets with Scholar applicants and their families.

“To sell the Scholars program, you have to convince the parents,” he says. “They come with the mindset that their kid has to go to college, and it’s on us to show them that our program can also lead their kids into a lucrative and high-tech career — and can do so without debt.”

It is here, at the levels of culture, that we see the more significant obstacles to vocational specialization and economic dynamism in the United States. Resisting the confines of the four-year-college cookie cutter requires a fundamental shift in our educational priorities and economic imaginations, leading us toward a broader view of vocation and economic stewardship that aligns with the true diversity of human gifts and the true scale of human needs.

The range of possibilities needs to be opened up, both practically and philosophically.  As of now, apprenticeships offer but one small challenge to the overarching educational, vocational, and economic conformity that dominates modern life, but the more they emerge, the more the prospect of their promise seems to stick.

Image: BMW Mini-Plant; Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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