College Dreams Morph to Apprenticeships

As college costs rise, some students are looking to apprenticeships as a way to get training and a job without huge debt.With the cost of college growing, along with student debt and doubts about the value of a college education, attention is returning to workforce training to fill skilled jobs left vacant for lack of qualified candidates.

NPR featured a group of college-prep students in Charlotte, N.C. who gave up their dreams of a college degree for a more promising future as apprentices in a Siemens factory that makes gas turbines and engines. Siemens hired six apprentices to train as replacements for workers who are nearing retirement age. It is the first apprenticeship training program in the United States by the German-based company.

The apprenticeship isn't a cake walk. It takes four years to complete and yields an associate degree and a journeyman certificate in manufacturing technology. More important, it offers a guaranteed job with a starting salary around $44,000 per year, employee benefits and opportunities for travel.

Charlotte has a history of this kind of training, according to NPR. Austrian manufacturer Blum couldn't find the skilled workers it needed, so teamed up with other firms to create Apprenticeship 2000. Initially college-bound students snubbed their noses at apprenticeships. But with college costs rising and post-graduate job prospects dwindling, interest is picking up in training modules that participating companies pay $160,000 per student to offer.

On-the-job training is combined with class work provided by a local community college. One 17-year-old Siemens apprentice featured in the NPR story said her ultimate goal is to become an engineer, leveraging her straight-A math aptitude with a first-hand knowledge of machine tools on the factory floor.

The Portland area has achieved a similar worker training success through a partnership between the Manufacturing 21 Coalition and the region's three workforce boards. Young people have received training in manufacturing processes, as well as welding and supply-chain management.

More than $1 million went to Portland-area manufacturers to provide on-the-job training for 300 newly hired workers. Two federal grants are making it possible for workers to complete degree and certificate program in connection with on-the-job training with local manufacturing companies.

Despite impressive strides in cooperative training programs in places such as Charlotte and Portland, many skilled jobs remain vacant. As Baby Boomers edge into retirement, there will be even more demand for skilled workers. Even though there is a fairly direct line between this kind of training and income-earning, tax-paying graduates, it receives surprisingly little attention compared to other aspects of postsecondary education.

Oregon has an ambitious goal of having 40 percent of its adults holding a college or post-graduate degree, 40 percent with an associate degree of postsecondary training certificate and 20 percent with a high school diploma or equivalent. All of those represent significant stretch goals. Eliminating high school dropouts and making college affordable and accessible are daunting challenges. But skilling up our workforce might be the most daunting because we haven't fully acknowledged the problem or contemplated the solution.