Institute on Education and the Economy

IEE Brief No. 5, February 1993

Youth Apprenticeship: Lessons from the U.S. Experience

Thomas Bailey and Donna Merritt

As an effort to meet the needs of young people who are not college-bound, youth apprenticeship has attracted a great deal of favorable attention. Youth apprenticeship, as the term is used here, is not an expansion of the apprenticeship system, currently practiced in the U.S., that serves the labor supply needs of specific occupations. Although there is no fixed definition of youth apprenticeship, a consensus is emerging on four basic components:

  • it is designed to be an integral part of the basic education of a broad cross-section of students;
  • its educational content integrates academic and vocational instruction;
  • a significant part of an apprentice's education takes place on the job and is coordinated with classroom instruction; and
  • students emerge from their apprenticeships with recognized and accepted credentials.

Except for some recent pilot projects, no youth apprenticeship program in this country has all four components, but educators have some experience with each component. The purpose of this Brief is to assess the feasibility of the youth apprenticeship model in the U.S. by examining programs that include some components of the model.

Why the Interest?

Interest in apprenticeship as the basis for educational reform arose from the diagnosis of the weaknesses of U.S. education, from the perception that European apprenticeship systems avoid many of these problems, and from a growing body of research in the U.S. on the educational advantages of integrating school instruction with nonschool experiences at work. The noncollege-bound often drift from one unskilled job to another, learning no skills, and working mainly with nonskilled young people. This system wastes time, delays maturity, and offers training—when it is offered—that is haphazard and in most cases does not result in any recognized credentials or certification.

German youth apprenticeship systems avoid most of these problems. On-the-job training occurs under the supervision of certified trainers, and the curricula are supervised by quasi-public employer organizations that include representatives of unions and schools. Apprenticeships provide a credential that is recognized throughout the country. Adolescents are quickly moved into the workplace, where they work with mature role models, acquire relevant workplace skills, and are socialized into the nonschool world, learning how to be effective and mature workers and learners.

Problems with the German Analogy

German apprenticeships are embedded in a system that tracks students into explicit career paths, a notion that is anathema to U.S. education reformers. In contrast to the U.S., German unions play a central role in the labor market and the apprenticeship system. Again, unlike the U.S., many companies in Germany have a long-term perspective on their employees' tenure and therefore are willing to absorb much of the cost of on-the-job training. There are no uniform, nationally accepted certification standards in this country as there are in Germany. Our analysis, therefore, is based on school-to-work programs in the U.S. We focus on four strategies that share some features with youth apprenticeship--agricultural education, cooperative education, career academies, and tech prep.

Four School-to-Work Models in the U.S.

Agricultural Education

Students receive hands-on, practical work experience from local employers and community members, building on an applied academic education in the classroom, often provided by teachers who have received formal training in agriculture. The distinctive feature of agricultural education is the socialization students receive into the world of work through auxiliary activities such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA). These activities, which have become almost as much a formalized part of their education as the classroom, give students opportunities to practice their skills and demonstrate their knowledge to their peers and future employers. These auxiliary programs appear to be particularly effective in teaching leadership and personal development skills (Gore, 1988).

Cooperative Education

Co-op education is not standardized, but the usual arrangement is that high school co-op students spend the morning in academic classes recommended and approved by a school co-op coordinator and the afternoon in a job for which they not only get paid but also receive high school credits toward graduation. Most co-op programs provide no workplace credentials for participation. The rewards are early workplace exposure, wages, and a high school diploma upon completion.

Career Academies

All academies are organized as schools within schools. The idea is to create a small learning community to foster long-term relationships between students and teachers and create a peer culture that supports aspiration and achievement. Further, each academy has a particular vocational, occupational, or industrial theme such as electronics or health. Within that theme, the academy provides a highly structured program blending applied academics, workplace exposure, and career counseling. Local employers serve as advisers and mentors and provide job placements and internships for academy students and graduates.

Tech Prep

The central concept of tech prep is the articulation of secondary school with community college programs in occupational areas. It usually involves the coordination of curricula during the last two years of high school and the first two years of community college, with a common core of required proficiency in mathematics, science, communications, and technology. The programs lead to an associate degree or a certificate in a career field. Tech prep programs do not train students for specific occupations but offer broad preparation for a cluster of occupations. Sometimes a work component is included, and some programs provide for employment during summers. Employers provide job placements and serve as advisers for the design and implementation of the programs.

We now assess how the four components of youth apprenticeship work in these four program models.

Components of Youth Apprenticeship

Student Participation

If youth apprenticeship is to have a realistic chance of widespread acceptance in this country, it must prepare a broad segment of the population and include college-bound students. However, increased focus on the college-bound creates the risk of an admissions process that excludes less accomplished students who could benefit. A central question, then, is whether it is possible to develop a youth apprenticeship system that finds a middle ground between the stigma of a "second-best" track and the restrictiveness of a selective program for the best students.

Among current school-to-work models, tech prep programs appear to have come closest to breaking the barriers between traditional vocational and academic students. Tech prep programs increase the postsecondary education opportunities for a broader group of students. Of course, this approach does preserve the distinction between students headed for community college and those bound for four-year degrees. Nonetheless, tech prep is an improvement over traditional vocational education.

Agricultural education has also had some success in reaching a wide range of students, at least within the agricultural community. Because the family-owned farm has given way to large, specialized, high-tech, corporate farming operations, youth are more likely to end up in production support positions than as owners/operators. This fact has forced agricultural vocational schools to recruit nontraditional students and provide programs where the agricultural/vocational component is often peripheral to the academic component.

Cooperative education programs that carry the negative stereotype of vocational programs have fewer applicants (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991). Most programs, however, have admission standards: an average GPA of at least 2.0, good attendance, a positive attitude, and a lack of disciplinary problems, in addition to specific employer requirements. Nonetheless, co-op students tend to come from lower socioeconomic levels and to have lower than average test scores.

While high school co-op seems closely linked with the perception of vocational education, there is a strong tradition of co-op-like education at four-year colleges. Many engineering students, for example, participate in co-op programs. The acceptance of the co-op approach for advanced professional training is evidence that a similar approach might have appeal beyond students traditionally attracted to vocational education.

The career academy movement originally targeted youth who lacked academic and occupational focus, but many academies have broadened their mission to prepare students for college as well as full-time employment. Successful academies attract more applicants, increasing competition for placement in the program and, in some cases, resulting in pressure to raise admission standards. Nevertheless, most academies still target students who have not excelled in a conventional school environment and who are unlikely to have plans to attend a four-year college.

Educational Content

The logic of a youth apprenticeship system points to an emphasis on broad conceptual, problem-solving skills. But where does this leave the actual preparation for jobs? The central question here is whether it is possible to develop a curriculum that combines both academic and vocational components without sacrificing quality at either end.

The tech prep and academy models try to combine academic and vocational instruction, using applied coursework to provide a conceptual framework. This approach builds on the cognitive science finding that students learn more effectively if the barriers and distinctions between in-school learning and out-of-school activities are broken down (Raizen, 1989; Berryman & Bailey, 1992).

The academic portion of most tech prep programs is often similar to college prep programs; each prepares students for postsecondary instruction, albeit in different types of institutions. In Canton, Ohio, tech prep students take a series of high-level applied "tech" courses (Tech Math, Tech Chemistry, Tech Physics, and 20th-Century Literature and Composition) that connect abstract knowledge to workplace applications.

Usually, co-op education students attend traditional academic and vocational classes with non-co-op students. As a result, integration depends primarily on the co-op coordinator/counselor. But coordinator responsibilities are added to teaching duties, and the counselor is typically responsible for the recruitment of students and the supervision of 50 to 60 students' classroom and workplace instruction. In addition, the counselor is the liaison between the school and the employer.

Unsurprisingly, integration of co-op students' school and worksite learning varies widely and is often haphazard. Indeed, the benefits of the co-op experience are seen to lie in strengthened work habits and in greater maturity and employability rather than in supporting academic learning.

Because of radical changes in the industry, agricultural education courses have shifted toward more academic content, and students are now required to take physics, engineering, and chemistry (Rosenfeld, 1983). Aside from these changes, the integration of coursework and practical learning experiences has always been a strong element of agricultural education, with a focus on behavioral and leadership skills.

In agricultural education, student organizations such as Future Farmers of America and 4-H are integral parts of the process. In these organizations, students learn leadership and technical skills in a manner that reinforces management training, problem-solving skills, goal-setting, and achievement based on group as well as individual performance.

In most agriculture programs, students are required to set up and run their own businesses (McCormick, 1988). In addition, they are encouraged to explore fields of study beyond agriculturally oriented subject matter. As a result, students graduate with solid experience not only in their area of specialization but also in peripheral disciplines.

Location of Instruction

In the apprenticeship model, the workplace is supposed to be the learning place, not simply an environment where students gain practical experience and specific job skills. How can the workplace be used as a place of instruction? What will motivate employers to participate? How can the quality of employer instruction be assured for all students? Does workplace learning actually complement and enhance the learning that takes place in the classroom?

In the U.S., there is a high rate of turnover among young workers, which might discourage employers from investing in apprenticeship. Although research indicates that training increases the expected tenure of employees (Mincer, 1988), a large-scale apprenticeship program would have to involve many employers who may not have enough job openings to hire all of their graduating apprentices.

Reducing the cost to employers through lower training wages or direct subsidies has not proved effective. In one instance, less than one-fifth of private employers were willing to take on demonstration youth even at a zero wage (Ball and Wolfhagen, 1981), apparently believing that the young people would not contribute enough to justify the effort to supervise them.

There is growing disillusionment with the quality of learning on the job. The vast majority of U.S. employers remain firmly committed to traditional production processes that depend on low-wage, low-skilled workers. Even if such employers could be convinced to take on young apprentices, the quality of education students would receive in these settings is questionable.

Programs that simply place young people on the job to gain work experience are not effective. The quality of on-the-job training is heavily dependent on who happens to be around to provide the training. In work groups with high turnover, "almost novices" train actual novices, a situation that violates models of good apprenticeship training (Scribner and Sachs, 1990).

All four school-to-work programs discussed in this Brief fall short in effectively using the work site as a learning environment where students are taught by employers. Few programs require participating employers to teach, settling instead for the presumed benefits of students' exposure to an actual workplace.

Agricultural education has successfully incorporated activities in 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and Supervised Occupational Experiences (SOEs) into students' educational experience. SOEs are 12-month projects outside the classroom that give students actual work experience, develop their applied skills in basic math and science and in technical agriculture, and link them to the larger agricultural community and, thus, to potential employers.

In many tech prep programs the links to employers are tenuous, rarely going beyond employer participation in the development and design of the program. The fundamental characteristic of tech prep remains articulation between the high school and the community college, not instruction on the job.

Similarly, career academies have promoted educator/employer collaboration but have not developed the workplace as an instruction site. Employers are heavily involved in the academies, and student employment experiences are well-paying, substantive opportunities. But the nature of the learning that takes place in the workplace is still not well understood.

Unlike the other programs, co-op education is based in the workplace. Unfortunately, we know very little about the quality of job placements in co-op education or about the quality of the learning that takes place in these jobs.


The diverse goals of apprenticeship create problems for credentialing. How specific or narrowly defined should the certified skills be? Should graduate apprentices be considered skilled craft workers or given more general certification, something like a diploma from a high-quality secondary school?

All of the programs described in this Brief address the need for credentials on some level, but some tech prep efforts have gone the furthest. In 1990, the American Technical Education Association (ATEA) established national minimum standards for all tech programs (McGrath, 1991). In many states, these standards have been integrated into the tech prep curriculum.

Competency-based curricula such as those in many tech prep programs have not been as extensively developed in the academies, which rely more on informal contact with participating employers.

Agricultural education has started to develop assessment and credentialing tools, and competency-based courses have been developed in many places.

The co-op education system lacks any specific certification procedures. Co-op programs rely on soft credentials such as letters of recommendation from employers. Further, the establishment of training standards is but a vague goal for most co-op programs.


There are grounds for some optimism about youth apprenticeship's potential to serve a broad range of students. Many programs have expanded their enrollments beyond at-risk youth or traditional vocational education students. Yet two negative tendencies emerge:

  • Programs that serve a wide variety of students tend to become internally differentiated, perpetuating the divisions between types of students.
  • Students preparing for college are only tenuously involved. And, with the exception of some agricultural programs, when programs reach out to college-bound students, less academically oriented students tend to be excluded.

Efforts to integrate academic and vocational content remain limited. Still conceptualized as a reform of vocational education, the integration strategy has barely penetrated traditional academic and college prep programs. Moreover, the trend toward integration remains primarily in the classroom, and very little is known about how the workplace can be used most effectively in this strategy.

The apprenticeship model calls for the transformation of workplaces into integral parts of the nation's basic education system. None of the four school-to-work models that we have examined even approach that level of employer involvement. If youth apprenticeship is to become a reality, we must address the issues of both employer participation and on-the-job pedagogy. The two issues are closely linked. If employers need to be cajoled into participating, educators lose their leverage to demand improvements in the educational experiences that employers offer apprentices. The market does not offer incentives for firms to search out the best educational strategies.

Credentialing at this time is ad hoc. The value of a particular diploma or certificate depends almost entirely on the reputation of the educational institution that conferred it. A number of state and local efforts are under way to develop competency standards and assessments, but little progress has been made in the development of nationwide methods to standardize certification. The more narrowly defined the occupational goals of a program, the easier it is to develop standards and credentials; as programs move toward a model such as youth apprenticeship in which occupational training is used to provide a broad educational foundation, credentialing becomes more problematic.

Development of a large-scale youth apprenticeship system in which a significant part of the learning takes place on the job is a long way off. One strategy would be to build on school-based models such as the academies and tech prep. Schools should continue trying to strengthen relationships with employers, but they have to confront the possibility that employer interests may not coincide with providing the best educational experience for students. There is no escaping the need for an appropriate set of institutions to regulate workplace education.

Despite the obstacles, efforts to adopt youth apprenticeship are extremely important. Many of the reforms associated with apprenticeship--efforts to break down the distinctions between learning and working, school and community, academic and vocational, and college-bound and noncollege-bound students--can make fundamental contributions to the overall improvement of education.


Ball, J., & Wolfhagen, C. (1981). Participation of private businesses as work sponsors in the youth entitlement demonstration. New York, NY: MDRC.

Berryman, S., & Bailey, T. (1992). The double helix of education and the economy. New York, NY: Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Gore, D. (1988). 4-H and Iowa. Iowa City, IA: Iowa State Historical Department.

McCormick, F.G. (1988). SOE: Where the action is in vocational agriculture. Insider, 43.

McGrath, J. (1991). Availability of national minimum standards. American Technical Education Association Journal, 3.

Mincer, J. (1988). Job training, wage growth, and labor turnover (Background paper). New York, NY: Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Raizen, S. (1989). Reforming education for work: A cognitive science perspective. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of California.

Rosenfeld, S. (1983). Something old, something new: The wedding of rural education and rural development. Phi Delta Kappan, December, 270–73.

Scribner, S., & Sachs, P. (1990). A study of on-the-job training. New York, NY: Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University.

U.S. General Accounting Office, Division of Human Resources. (1991). Transition from school to work: Linking education and worksite training ( Report to Congressional requesters). Washington, DC: Author.

This Brief is a distillation of a paper by Thomas Bailey and Donna Merritt entitled School-To-Work Transition and Youth Apprenticeship in the United States. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, 1992. The publication and dissemination of the Brief is supported by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation; Teachers College, Columbia University; and the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship.




Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University
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