The Case for White-Collar Apprenticeships

Over the past century, the labor market in America has seen a dramatic shift from blue-collar to white-collar work. According to the Bureau of Census Data, white-collar work in the US grew from 17.6% of total employment in 1900 to 59.9% in 2003 [1]. The “white-collar” categorization was then discontinued for lack of specificity, but the fact remains that the majority of the American workforce is now employed in work where brainpower is more relevant than muscle power, a situation opposite to the way things were a century ago.

As knowledge work was displacing manual labor as the most common form of employment in America, the amount of formal education completed by Americans also grew rapidly. Before World War 2, only a quarter of American adults had graduated high school, and a vanishingly small percent had gone to college. Americans like George Washington, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Thomas Edison rose to the heights of politics, business and science with little to no formal education. But that state of affairs changed quickly after the end of World War 2 with the introduction of the GI bill, which paid for postsecondary education for millions of veterans. 75 years later, a large majority of American adults now hold high school degrees, and over a third hold bachelor’s degrees.

As Americans have begun to attain higher levels of formal educational credentials, so too have jobs begun to demand higher levels of credentials as a prerequisite. Some of this is because some jobs really do require extensive formal education: patients might not want to be operated on by a neurosurgeon who had learned exclusively on-the-job! But many white-collar jobs, like sales and clerical roles, which do not require extensive theoretical training and traditionally were not filled by college graduates, are starting to require higher degrees in a phenomenon often referred to as degree inflation [2]. 

Some of this is rational from the point of view of the employer, as college graduates can be expected to have higher levels of skills applicable to office work than high school graduates or dropouts, if only due to their four extra years of experience performing a type of knowledge work in college. But spending four years writing papers on art history with the goal of landing a sales job is not efficient from the point of view of either the prospective employer, who limits their labor pool and ends up paying a premium for entry-level labor, or the prospective employee, who incurs often-heavy tuition fees and four years of opportunity cost before starting a career. 

A better model exists in the form of apprenticeships. For centuries, teenagers have learned skilled blue-collar trades in collaboration with more experienced mentors, and have emerged into young adulthood as full-fledged professionals in their chosen field. As an added benefit, apprentices can be productive in the lower-skilled parts of a job almost from the get-go, implicitly paying for their own training and earning a wage as their counterparts in college instead pay tuition.

This model has occasionally been applied to white-collar professions in countries like Germany and the UK, in which formal apprenticeships in the traditional mold exist for higher-skilled jobs like IT system administration and CNC machining. Those programs, where they exist, are generally coordinated to some degree by the relevant government, but America’s culture would likely pair better with a privatized apprenticeship model, which could fill niches unseen by a government administrator.

In such a model, companies large enough to sustain internal apprenticeship programs would designate appropriate roles for which they would hire apprentices, like sales or web development. For those roles, they would hire recent high school graduates or even dropouts, who would commit to the apprenticeship program for several years.

The apprentices would be assigned to a team and mentor, just like a typical intern or co-op student worker, with the key difference being that they would stay on each team for one to several years, rotating as appropriate to learn different aspects of their chosen profession. 

This on-the-job training would be paired with classroom training, where each cohort of apprentices would be instructed in relevant skills alongside their day job. This might include things like written and oral communication for sales apprentices, psychology and anthropology for marketers, and computer science and graphic design for web developers. Some of these courses could be conducted internally by the company’s more-senior employees; others could be outsourced to local colleges in a reverse co-op arrangement.

The expectation would be that after completion of the apprenticeship program, some of its alumni would keep working in their new profession, while others would then go to college to pursue a broader and deeper formal education. Those that kept working would have the advantage of a four-year head start in their career trajectory and a much better financial situation than a recent college graduate; those that went to college after all would have a very compelling college admissions packet, transfer credits to the extent their employer could negotiate for them with universities, and a much better idea of what is worth studying in college than someone right out of high school. Talented students from poor families and poor schools might benefit to an especial degree from this sort of program, which would let them gain a stable financial footing and a better understanding than that provided by their high school of how to navigate a future college education. In this way, an apprenticeship program would play a similar role to that which the military plays for many teenagers today, but would prepare them for a rather different sort of work.

Of course, some apprentices would probably flounder partway through the program, or conversely be tempted to leave for a competitor. Employers could protect their investment by a similar mechanism to what West Point does for cadets: apprentices could leave at any point during the first year with no strings attached, but those that left later on would have to pay back the expenses incurred in training them. The apprenticeship program could also have a contractual requirement to work for the employer for a certain number of years after completing the program, with the alternative option of paying a financial penalty. Employers could also protect their investments in their apprentices by paying the college tuition of apprenticeship alumni who wished to go to college afterwards, under the condition that they return for a certain number of years after completing their degrees – much like many employers pay for business school for their employees under the condition that they come back afterwards.

This system of white-collar apprenticeships would have significant advantages for both the employer and the apprentice. 

The employer would be able to attract some of the most talented and driven teenagers with a unique value proposition and thereby gain a recruiting advantage over competitors that wait to hire much competed-over college graduates. The apprentices, once recruited, would also have the value of being able to perform necessary but less-skilled work that must currently be done by older employees for whom it is tremendously boring. Once done with their contractual term, a number of apprentices could be expected to stick around and keep working for the employer and delivering value for years to come, assuming the employer did a good enough job to keep offering opportunities for advancement and a good work culture.

For high school students, the apprenticeship program would represent a unique opportunity to learn a profession with great career opportunities while earning a living straight out of high school, while keeping options open for a college education and even improving them. Right now, many high school graduates go off to college to study things which they will never use again, and make friends there with people who all too often end up moving to different cities and drifting apart over time. Instead, a well-run apprenticeship program would let students learn a gainful profession and the theoretical knowledge behind it while earning money from day one, and to use some of the most social years of their lives to form bonds with friends who would be far more likely to stay in the same industry and city and remain close social and professional contacts for decades. 

Starting a program like this would surely lead to howls of disapproval from those who see the one-size-fits-all track of formal education as the right way for everyone, but the company that started it would be more than compensated for that negative attention by the newfound stream of talent it would be able to access. Done right, an apprenticeship program would prove its worth in a matter of years, and would surely spawn numerous competitors – exactly what our economy needs in this era of degree inflation.

The only question is, which company will seize the opportunity to go first? [3]


[1] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/employment-white-collar

[2] https://www.burning-glass.com/wp-content/uploads/Moving_the_Goalposts.pdf

[3] Thanks to Ani Mohan for this link: a recent Google press release mentions an apprenticeship program! Maybe my former employer will be the one to blaze this trail.


Thanks to Allie Cavallaro, Ani Mohan, Alex Gruebele, Sal Calvo, Josh Pickering, and Anthony Buzzanco for helping edit drafts of this essay.

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