An American Apprenticeship Renaissance is in the Making


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U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Suzan LeVine
U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Suzan LeVine

Since the dawn of our democracy, the American Dream has been about opportunity and the fact that anyone from anywhere in society can pursue and achieve a life where they are safe to live, love, and be happy.

But in the United States, basically since WWII, the paths to that Dream have narrowed to a single route and formula that requires a University Degree (and a house and car) – a path that is getting more and more expensive and, frankly, doesn’t necessarily equip our nation with all of the skills we need for the future.

While this formula has served our nation relatively well in the past, we need to open up more paths to that Dream in order to continue to be the economic and innovation leader that we are. Our overall unemployment is an enviable 4.9%, but our youth unemployment is double that at 10%. Add to that the fact that many students leave University in the United States with no skills, no job, and a heck of a lot of debt.

We are at an incredible inflection point of opportunity. 

In the United States alone, we have almost 6 million jobs currently unfilled – really great jobs ranging from software developers to engineers to health technicians and beyond. We need to rethink how we educate and train (and then re-educate and retrain) our citizens for these new jobs. This is especially relevant given the extraordinary and insatiable pace of innovation we are seeing, coupled with our improved health and our longer lifespans.

It is time, then, for us to recognize that we can have many paths to success and the American Dream, and they don't all start with a college degree! And it is incumbent upon business, government and society to do everything possible to open up those paths.

One of those key new paths is that of Apprenticeship – an age old, but newly refreshed way to gain knowledge and skills through practical experience and learning that puts people into the positions rather than taking a theoretical approach. For example young people doing a commercial apprenticeship don’t just learn the math behind business accounting, they do it as a part of their apprenticeship job. They don’t just study in a book how electrical circuits work, they build the circuits with their hands. And all of this is while they are earning a paycheck, through which they garner more respect and get more financial freedom AND responsibility.

I believe that an Apprenticeship Renaissance in the United States is a key to our long term economic growth and, more importantly, is the key to more people than ever achieving their American Dream!

The really great news is that this Renaissance has already started in the United States – especially with the help of partner countries and companies who deeply understand and benefit from apprenticeship.

In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, a robust apprenticeship model in which almost 70% of young people do apprenticeships instead of high school in a diverse array of positions is a key contributor to an overall 3.3% unemployment rate and a 2.9% youth unemployment rate.

The fully permeable system there also enables apprentices to go on to University if they choose. In fact, many CEOs and other leaders in Switzerland started their careers as apprentices.

In the summer of 2015, Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, and Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, recognizing the opportunity to learn from this model and adapt it to the United States, all signed a joint declaration of intent with Switzerland to collaborate. At the same time, over 20 Swiss companies agreed to bring and/or expand their robust model of apprenticeship to their United States facilities. These prestigious partner companies range from Nestlé to Zurich Insurance Group to Pilatus Aircraft Manufacturing to Mercuria Commodities Trading and Bühler Corporation and more. Some are crafting their US apprenticeship programs post-high school with community colleges and some are starting during high school.

Ultimately, when this system is running smoothly in the United States, young people will be able to choose how they want to gain the skills for their futures; businesses will have an incredible pool of talent; and people later in their careers will have an established system for retraining and pivoting to new industries as innovation phases out some positions and introduces new ones.

This blog is a part of a monthly series highlighting the contributions of the Commerce Department’s agencies to the Open for Business Agenda. This month’s focus is on Skills for Business.

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Last updated: 2016-12-09 11:13

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