You might have noticed, the government has been moving steadily away from requiring college degrees for many jobs. Instead, agencies should hire according to skills people have.
Since the middle ages, apprenticeships have long brought unskilled people to acquire useful and career-grade skills. Why not more apprenticeships in government itself?
The Labor Department, repository of regulations for apprenticeships, has chosen to highlight this mode of job development throughout the private sector. Labor got authority, via a 1937 law know as the Fitzgerald Act, to make rules for apprenticeships. The idea was, and is, to ensure employees wouldn’t unfairly exploit apprentices. Though a relic of the New Deal era, apprenticing under the U.S. “official” system remains a positive route to a satisfying and good-paying career.
This matters more than ever now to any organization scrambling to ingest talent.
As the Labor Department’s Manny Lamarre told me, the federally-registered apprentice programs come with base pay and other protections that make them what he called the gold standard. Labor’s apprentice programs live within its Employment and Training Administration. What I didn’t realize is that while apprenticing has its routes in the traditional trades such as construction, today it covers many occupations I’d presumed only people with degrees were able to get into. Teaching, software development, cybersecurity analyst — those all have apprentice programs. Teaching apprenticeships are now occurring in 23 states, Larmarre said.
In other words, apprenticeships produce critical jobs. As a former frequent flyer, my mind still wanders to the engines in a jet. Like, what the heck is going on inside that loud object encased in its painted aluminum shell? Jet engines, conceptually simple but really complicated in reality, require super-skilled maintainers. But after a two-year apprenticeship, a person can become an aircraft powerplant mechanic.
In this day and age, you can get a bachelor’s degree from some place like Harvard University, pay $250,000 for it, and never read a syllable of Shakespeare, much less learn anything someone will pay you enough to payoff off that student loan this century.
I’m exaggerating. Career outcomes vary depending on whether, in college, you major in medieval mead-brewing studies or electrical engineering. Apprenticing generally means someone skips the traditional 4-year college. Apprentices learn to do things via direct training by people who already know how to do them well.
In some sense, the armed services are gigantic apprenticeship organizations. The right person can become a jet pilot, a nuclear reactor operator, or a teacher (albeit a tough one) in a couple of years.
This is one reason why agencies have abandoned 4-year degree requirements for so many jobs. They’re relying instead on a person’s skills and capabilities, not where a job candidate obtained them. The skills-based hiring initiative get underway during the Trump administration and is among the few policies specifically continued during the Biden adminstration.
Also true: A skilled person who may not have a traditional liberal arts education, is certainly free to read Shakespeare or learn to paint landscapes. A major in Flemish anthropology can learn to code in Python. I’ve often heard cybersecurity managers say they want people with non-technical backgrounds who can bring critical thinking to cyber, and learn the particulars on the job.
So it runs both ways. The route to productive, needed skills matters less than the skills themselves. People have multiple paths to good careers, and wise talent seekers find pedigree less and less relevant. Yes, some professions — medicine, law, clergy — require a corpus of knowledge generally acquired in an academic institution. But so much of what people actually do in organizations they learn on the job. Apprenticeships inculcate into an occupation formally and, under federally-registered plans, at decent pay.
We’ve all learned tons throughout our lives from the teacher-apprentice model, most of it informally. In junior high school 55 years ago all the boys took what they called “shop” with Mr. Chaisson. The girls took “home ec.” A decided improvement in the latter day is the fading away of such distinctions. Mr. Chaisson, alas, occasionally lost a finger in a type of open-bladed planer long regulated off the market, but the wood- and metalworking basics he taught us, I still use to this day.