NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — With its gleaming classrooms, sports teams and even a pep squad, the Apprentice School that serves the enormous Navy shipyard here bears little resemblance to a traditional vocational education program.
And that is exactly the point. While the cheerleaders may double as trainee pipe fitters, electricians and insulators, on weekends they’re no different from college students anywhere as they shout for the Apprentice School Builders on the sidelines.
But instead of accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, Apprentice School students are paid an annual salary of $54,000 by the final year of the four-year program, and upon graduation are guaranteed a job with Huntington Ingalls Industries, the military contractor that owns Newport News Shipbuilding.
“There’s a hunger among young people for good, well-paying jobs that don’t require an expensive four-year degree,” said Sarah Steinberg, vice president for global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase. “The Apprentice School is the gold standard of what a high-quality apprenticeship program can be.”
Long regarded by parents, students and many educators as an off ramp from the college track, apprenticeships are getting a fresh look in many quarters. The idea has recently captured the attention of several presidential candidates from both parties, with employer-oriented apprentice programs increasingly seen as a way to appeal to anxious Americans looking for an alternative route to a secure middle-income job.
Last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed a plan that would offer companies a $1,500 tax credit for each apprenticeship slot they fill. And in a speech laying out his economic plan on Tuesday, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican primary contender, vowed to expand apprenticeships and vocational training if he makes it to the White House.
Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, who formally entered the presidential primary race on Monday, has promoted apprenticeships in his state and increased funding for them even as he has cut aid to Wisconsin’s vaunted university system.
“We know this works,” said Thomas E. Perez, the labor secretary, describing how big companies have long trained young people in Germany, which has 40 apprentices per 1,000 workers, compared to about three per 1,000 in the United States. “It’s not hard to figure out why the Germans have a youth unemployment rate that is half what it is here.”
But there is a downside to the innovative approach used at the Apprentice School in combining skills-based education, a college-like experience and a virtually free ride for its nearly 800 students (even class rings and textbooks are covered): This approach has been rarely duplicated elsewhere.
Despite prominent mentions by President Obama in several State of the Union addresses and bipartisan support in Congress, apprenticeship programs have struggled to gain a foothold among employers.
Furthermore, the programs were devastated by the sharp losses in manufacturing and construction jobs that started with the last recession.
Between 2007 and 2013, the number of active apprentices in the United States fell by over one-third, from about 451,000 to just under 288,000, according to Labor Department data. In 2014, that number increased for the first time since the recession, rising by 27,000.
Now, Mr. Perez has set a goal of doubling enrollment by 2018.
In late June, he traveled to North Carolina, where he was joined by two local Republican members of Congress, to spotlight Washington’s efforts to expand apprenticeships, including $100 million in new grants to be awarded this autumn.
In Mooresville, touring the factory floor and giving a speech at Ameritech Die & Mold, which has teamed with local high schools and a nearby community college to recruit and train its apprentices, Mr. Perez said what was needed was not simply more government financing or new private-sector programs.
“At the educational level, we need a comprehensive strategy to change the hearts and minds of parents,” Mr. Perez told the audience, which included several parents of current Ameritech apprentices. “There are highly selective, four-year colleges that are easier to get into than many apprenticeship programs.”
The Apprentice School gets more than 4,000 applicants for about 230 spots annually, giving it an admission rate about equivalent to that of Harvard.
Perhaps the greatest reason that students and their parents are showing more interest in apprenticeships is the financial equation. While the typical graduate from a four-year private college in 2014 left campus with a debt load of $31,000 and started work earning about $45,000 a year, Apprentice School students emerge debt free and can make nearly $10,000 more in their first job.
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