Apprenticeship programs are one of the most often overlooked areas of education. They may also be the key to our economic recovery and future success following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Registered apprenticeship programs in community colleges pair coursework with paid work experience for the student. Most of these programs are directly tied to the traditional trade unions, but a concerted effort has been made in recent years to expand apprenticeship programs to include emerging fields such as health care, advanced manufacturing and high tech.
Curriculum for these programs must be approved through existing processes at each individual college and courses can be offered as either non-credit or credit, giving students opportunities to earn certificates and degrees. The programs must also be approved by the state.
Both the state and federal government are supportive of such programs, and the Biden administration has recently taken steps to increase apprenticeships. Each year the California Legislature and U.S. Department of Labor set aside money to support not only existing programs, but also the expansion of apprenticeship programs into new fields.
Here in San Jose, Evergreen Valley and San Jose City colleges have multiple programs registered with the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards. These include programs in advanced manufacturing, ironworking and high tech, among others.
One of the benefits of apprenticeship programs offered through community colleges is the academic instruction and curriculum development that occurs in partnership between education experts at the colleges and subject matter experts from industry partners. Program curriculum is co-created alongside local businesses and is specifically designed to meet the needs of employers and create direct pathways to living-wage careers.
Students benefit by earning money while they complete their education and having a clear pathway to a good career. Employers benefit through reduced turnover; increased productivity; reduced training costs and having access to a diverse pipeline of highly-skilled, well-educated and well-trained workers ready to fill in-demand roles in their organizations.
While great strides have been made in recent years to expand existing apprenticeship programs and develop new ones, we in the United States could learn much from the successes of the Swiss apprenticeship model, which has been called the “gold standard” of vocational training systems by the National Center on Education and the Economy.
Although the U.S. and Swiss economies and cultures are vastly different, there are many lessons to be learned. In Switzerland, apprenticeships play a much larger role in education and the economy, with almost two-thirds of Swiss youth between ages 16 and 18 combining school and work through such vocational education and training.
However, the advantage of the Swiss system is that it is designed so students who begin in an apprenticeship program can easily make the transition to a university pathway at almost any point in their educational and career journey. Even though we have talked about creating such a system here in the United States, we have not been able to do so in any appreciable manner. That needs to change.
As higher education enrollments continue to decline in California and the rest of the United States, we should be looking to create more dynamic pathways between career education programs, such as apprenticeship training and traditional academic programs and pathways. We can accomplish this synergy by continuing to strongly support apprenticeship programs through expanding the scope of course and program offerings, seamlessly integrating work-based and classroom learning and articulating and coordinating the academic requirements between academic pathways and apprenticeships.
In this way, thoughtful investments made today can potentially yield positive returns for businesses, employers and employees for decades to come.
San José Spotlight columnist Raúl Rodríguez is Interim Chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]