MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to talk about those new unemployment numbers. Last week, we learned that the national unemployment rate has dropped to 7.7 percent. That's the lowest level in four years. But the cheering hasn't started for one group of people, the youngest workers, or would-be workers.
According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor figures, the unemployment rate for 16 to 19-year-olds is 23.5 percent. It's at 12.7 percent for 20 to 24-year-olds. But our next guest says that this country needs to look beyond the remedies that have been debated in recent years, such as pushing more kids to go to college, to a tried and true approach that has worked in the past.
Robert Lerman is a fellow at the Urban Institute and a professor of economics at American University and he says the country should consider expanding access to apprenticeships, and he's with us now.
Thanks so much for joining us.
ROBERT LERMAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: So I think when people hear the word, apprenticeship I'm not sure what comes to mind. I think maybe people think about swinging an anvil in a blacksmith's shop or something that has nothing to do with the modern era. So what is an apprenticeship?
LERMAN: An apprenticeship is a structured program of work-based learning and classroom-based instruction that leads to certification in an occupation, and it involves a high level of skill demands and it covers many occupations, depending on the country. In our country, we focus more on the skilled trades in construction and in manufacturing, but it can work in many other fields.
MARTIN: How is that different from an intern program that a lot of people are familiar with?
LERMAN: OK. Internships are different from apprenticeships in the matter of duration, expectation and the structuring of skills, high skills. Internships are very good for short term experiences, but not for occupational qualification.
MARTIN: Are there places in which apprenticeship programs have never gone out of style, that they're up and running, have been running and are - that we could take a look at? I mean, the medical profession, where doctors train - they actually do train. They don't - may not call it that, but that's - in fact, they're serving an apprenticeship. Are there other examples you could give us?
LERMAN: Well, I think it depends on the country. In some countries, apprenticeships are widespread. They cover accounting, they cover commercial activities, commercial sales, they cover culinary arts, they cover hospitality, retail. And now in this country, we've developed some in the area, for example, pharmacy assistants. So - but as far as long term, I think you'd have to go with the crafts.
MARTIN: Why do you think that these kinds of programs have fallen out of favor in the U.S. when you say that they're actually much more common in Europe? Why do you think that is?
LERMAN: Well, we never had as robust a system as the Europeans. When I say Europeans, I'm speaking mainly of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark. The reason is we've had much more of an education focus. We've tried to train people to the extent we did through schooling in vocational programs within high schools. Those can be effective, but very often they're quite uneven and they lack a rich context that you need to really gain those occupational skills and expertise.
MARTIN: We're talking with professor of economics Robert Lerman. We're talking about apprenticeships and we're talking about why there's a feeling that apprenticeships - bringing apprenticeships back could do something to cut the very significant unemployment rate among younger workers, potential workers.
Why would that be the case? How would this help the situation? Because I think the common understanding is that the reason that the unemployment rate is high is that just the jobs don't exist.
LERMAN: Well, we do have an aggregate demand problem and I think that that's quite relevant, but in terms of long term development, as well as short term jobs, apprenticeship could play a significant role. We're seeing manufacturers and others claim that they have a skills shortage, and so on the one hand we have this high youth unemployment rate. On the other hand, people are claiming they have a skills shortage.
Well, how can we deal with that? Well, some people say community colleges, but it's better if the employer actually hires the person as an apprentice. They're doing real work. They're learning on the job under a mentor. It's not in some massive institution where there might be one advisor for every 1,000 students. They know exactly what they need to take and when they take a course, they can see its application very directly to what they're doing on the job.
MARTIN: You were saying earlier that you think that part of the reason that apprenticeships have a fairly - at this stage of our history - a fairly kind of narrow life in the United States is in part we're focused on college. We're focused on college and community college as kind of the be-all way to have opportunity in this country. But is part of it, though, that the idea that apprenticeships kind of steer you at a very young age, in a very specific direction, and then you can't get out of it? I mean, if you're trained to do a certain kind of work, that's the only work you're really trained to do. So could you speak to that?
LERMAN: I think - what are they going to - what are people going to do otherwise? That's the real question, and I think in an apprenticeship young people learn how to learn. They gain a sense of pride that they've been able to master a whole occupational area. And remember, they're taking relevant classes, so they're upgrading their math skills, but it's math skills that they're really going to use. Many times people take courses and they may do OK on the exam and three years later they don't remember anything. But if you use it on a daily basis or at least on a weekly basis, you're much more likely to retain it and then grow with it.
MARTIN: It seems to me that one of the objections that people might have to your idea is the same objection that a lot of people have about vocational education, which used to be a lot more popular in the United States than it is now. And it fell out of favor, in part because a lot of people started to believe that vocational education was just a trap for black and brown kids, or kids who aren't wealthy.
There's this famous scene in Malcolm X's book, his autobiography, where he talks about the fact that he says to his guidance counselor, you know what? I think I'd like to be a lawyer. And the teacher says to him, well, you know what? Why don't you think about carpentry? You're good with your hands. And I think that there have enough of stories like that that a lot of people think, you know what? This is just a way to steer certain kids out of access to higher education. Have you heard that objection and what do you say to that?
LERMAN: I've heard it many times and just because we made one mistake some years ago, which was a bad mistake in steering academically-oriented young people away from college, so too we can't make the opposite mistake today. If you look at African-American males, we have about 15, 16 percent of them getting BA degrees.
I say I'm in favor of more getting BA degrees. Let's double it. Let's say we were able to go from 16 percent to 32 percent. That would be a lot of work, but what about the other 68 percent? Shouldn't we have space for people who like to learn by doing, who like to combine classroom activity with real employability at the workplace and skill development at the workplace? I think we need both.
MARTIN: You've been traveling around the country, talking to legislators and employers about this idea. What response are you getting?
LERMAN: Well, I'm getting some response, but the government's funding is minimal for apprenticeship, and so even at the state level you're seeing declines, and at the federal level the share of people who are out there helping the market and provide technical assistance for apprenticeship programs has declined by half, and you really need to help explain to employers in this country where it's not as common how to actually use apprenticeship. Some employers know, but most do not, and so the way to get there is to increase the budget for marketing, technical assistance and ideally to provide some tax credit to somewhat level the playing field because right now almost all the money is going to the pure academic approach.
MARTIN: Well, keep us posted.
MARTIN: Robert Lerman is a fellow at the Urban Institute. He's a professor of economics at American University and he joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C.
Professor, thanks so much for joining us.
LERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.