The Apprentices

The editors of the Wall Street Journal point to support for apprenticeship programs as a step in the right direction:

President Trump directed Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta last week to streamline regulations to make it easier for employers, industry groups and labor unions to offer apprenticeships. Many employers provide informal apprenticeships for new workers, but the Labor bureaucracy regulates and approves programs whose credentials are recognized industry-wide.

About 505,000 workers are enrolled in government-registered apprenticeships. The programs typically pair on-the-job training with educational courses that allow workers to make money while honing skills in fields like welding, plumbing, electrical engineering and various mechanical trades. While construction apprenticeships are common, training programs are growing in industries like restaurant and hotel management.

Nearly all apprentices receive jobs and the average starting salary is $60,000, according to the Labor Department. That beats the pay for most college majors outside of the hard sciences. Last year’s National Association of Colleges and Employers survey estimated the starting salary of education majors at $34,891 and humanities at $46,065.

How do you reconcile that with these facts?

For decades the cultural and economic assumption has been that Americans will be better off with a college degree. This is still true overall, and economic returns to education have risen. This is especially true for those with cognitive ability who acquire skills in growth industries like software design or biological sciences. Politicians have responded by subsidizing college almost as much as they do housing—with Pell grants, 529 tax subsidies and more recently debt forgiveness.

which is what I’ve been saying for decades and been writing about during the lifespan of this blog. Here’s how I would suggest reconciling those two apparently conflicting sets of facts.

First, not everyone will benefit from a college education. Just about 10% of the population will, leading to the obvious conclusion that the enormous degree to which we’re subsidizing higher education is an error.

Second, we’re not just subsidizing higher education. We also subsidize the incomes of bankers, lawyers, teachers, social workers, physicians, and many other college grads. How much would they earn without the subsidies? There’s no way to tell. We only know that presently their incomes are subsidized.

Third, we’re penalizing other workers with our education, trade, environmental, and other policies. What would the incomes of truck drivers, workers in the hospitality sectors, and other sectors be if we weren’t importing millions of workers from other countries? Again, there’s no way to tell. We can reasonably surmise that they would be higher but that’s about it.

My conclusion is that the dream that some have of all Americans getting college educations to follow high-paying jobs that don’t exist should be recognized as the fantasy that it is. We will need a varied, diverse economy for the foreseeable future, one in which the majority of people work at jobs that don’t or at least shouldn’t require college degrees.

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment