CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — If adopted widely by U.S. manufacturers and other businesses, apprenticeships have the potential to help solve a critical U.S. problem with high unemployment among youth and workers who got laid off during the recession, backers say. Despite five years of recovery from the Great Recession, many of these hard-to-employ people still can’t find jobs.
“We are filling the skills gap,” said Sebastian Patta, executive vice president of human resources for German carmaker Volkswagen, which is bringing German apprenticeship programs to its U.S. manufacturing operations here. “That is resonating throughout the U.S.” Instead of being faced with a life of job insecurity, graduates from an apprenticeship program like VW’s “can have a good career and take care of their families and retire with confidence,” he said.
The payoff is particularly big for young people. In the United States, joblessness among people between 16 and 24 soared to over 20 percent during the recession in 2009. Though it has fallen since then, it remains elevated at 14.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — more than twice the overall jobless rate of 6.2 percent.
Joblessness among youth in Germany, by contrast, is 7.8 percent, with the German apprenticeship system widely credited for providing a better hiring environment for Germans just entering the workforce. Moreover, with sales prospects growing around the world, German manufacturers are so eager to open new positions that they are drawing young workers from Spain, Italy and other countries in the European Union, where unemployment is far higher.
Joblessness among youth in Spain and Greece ranges as high as 56 percent, leading authorities in Spain to explore setting up an apprenticeship system like the one that has served Germany so well. The European Union is now promoting apprenticeship programs throughout Europe and the trend is prompting growing interest in the United States.
President Obama this year became the first American president to tout apprenticeships in his State of the Union address as one of the best ways to “set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.” He sponsored a White House summit on apprenticeships this spring with businesses such as IBM, Bank of America, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield participating. And he established a $100 million grant program for businesses needing help setting up apprenticeships through local community colleges.
Think tanks such as the Aspen Institute, Brookings Institution and Center for American Progress also are pushing the idea. The enthusiasm shown by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Tennessee Republican whose district includes VW’s massive, state-of-the-art factory, and other mostly GOP political leaders in Tennessee for the same approach advocated by Mr. Obama demonstrates how a rare bipartisan consensus seems to be emerging on the need for more such job-related training.
“I fervently believe that education is the key to moving forward,” Mr. Fleischmann said, echoing sentiments often heard by Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats. But he seemed to resist any systematic approach like the one in Germany which involves unions as well as the government, insisting that each U.S. company must find its own way to train workers.