Panel Paper: Can Expanded Apprenticeship Prevent the Erosion of Middle Class Jobs?

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 3:25 PM
Navajo (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Robert I. Lerman, American University
Central to concerns about the middle class is the erosion of middle class jobs and the creation of the “hour glass” economy.  Economist David Autor highlights the polarization in the U.S. labor market, with computerization eliminating middle-skill jobs while shifting low-skill workers into poorly paid, difficult to automate, service professions.  The Financial Times reports on the UK, finding that “Jobs are being created at the top and bottom of the skills scale, while those in the middle tier – including office administrators and blue-collar process operators – are losing out. The trend is intensifying the ‘hour glass economy’, where new technologies increase low-skilled jobs but eliminate many in the middle that require intermediate skills.”  High youth unemployment rates in the U.S. and especially in Europe exacerbate these trends by keeping many workers from gaining initial work experience.

Are these trends inevitable and impervious to policy?  Or can wise skill development approaches retain and expand middle class jobs?  This paper considers the potential of robust apprenticeship systems for raising skills, productivity and wages and thereby increasing the share of jobs providing middle class incomes. 

Apprenticeship training is a highly developed system for raising the skills and productivity of workers in a wide range of occupations.  Apprentices are employees who have formal agreements with employers to carry out a recognized program of work-based and classroom learning as well as a wage schedule that includes increases over the apprenticeship period.  In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, apprenticeships have long offered a way of upgrading the quality of manufacturing, commercial, and managerial jobs.  Apprenticeships within the U.S. and elsewhere show how construction occupations can reach high wages and high productivity.  Can the model be extended and attract firms to upgrade other occupations? 

The paper begins by defining middle-skills occupations, largely in terms of education and experience.  Next, the paper describes skill requirements and alternative approaches to preparing and upgrading the skills of individuals for these occupations.  Programs of academic education and apprenticeship programs emphasizing work-based learning have often competed for the same space but the full picture reveals significant numbers of complementarities.  Third, we show how apprenticeship can affect the demand side of the market, encouraging firms to transform jobs into high skill career positions.  Fourth, we consider the evidence on the costs and effectiveness of apprenticeship training in several countries.  Of particular interest is the evidence on the impacts of apprenticeship on firms and new findings on whether apprenticeship training locks workers into specific occupations and limits their occupational mobility.   The analysis deals with the costs and benefits of apprenticeship versus school-based alternatives aimed at preparing young people for careers.  Next, the paper discusses recent policy developments in the United States and United Kingdom and the implications for the feasibility of expanding apprenticeship.  This section considers how extensive this mode of training can become. The concluding section answers the paper’s initial question on the role of apprenticeship systems in rebuilding middle class jobs.