It's not easy for Phil Roark to find the right employees. He's the plant manager for Eaton Corp.'s Aerospace Group in Charleston, South Carolina. The parts that Eaton manufactures in this large, clean plant end up in airplanes, where they help control wing flaps and landing gear. The work is intricate. Parts are cut inside closed chambers by machines run off computers. Quality control is done by people looking through microscopes. It takes skill to do this kind of work, and Roark has been struggling to hire people.
"Used to be you had a lot of shop classes, you had a lot of vocational aspects, but eventually I think it wasn't cool anymore to work in manufacturing," Roark said. "Everybody was being pushed to go get a college degree — be a lawyer, be a doctor — and there's nothing wrong with that. But at some point, you have to realize everybody's not doing that, and what happened to our ability to actually be able to make things?"
Roark has a lot of parts that need to be made; orders shot up 30 percent last year. So Eaton began looking for more workers. The company advertised and asked its current employees for referrals. Eaton couldn't find enough good candidates. It raised wages and lowered the required years of experience, but Roark still couldn't find enough people with the necessary skills.
Finally, he went to his bosses with the idea of hiring an apprentice: Eaton would train a new machinist from scratch. Instead of paying an experienced machinist $25 an hour, the company would pay an apprentice $15 an hour plus benefits. Eaton would assign an experienced employee to serve as a full-time mentor, and the company would cover tuition for night classes in machining at a nearby technical college. South Carolina sweetens the deal by giving companies a thousand dollar per apprentice tax credit.
"We calculated a payback for our investment, and it was like six months," Roark said. That made it an easy sell to his bosses. "They looked at it, and they were like, 'Wow, can you get five?'"
Using apprenticeships the way Eaton did is an approach far more common in Europe than in the United States. In Germany, more than half of all young people launch their careers with an apprenticeship. In the U.S., the percentage of young people who enter the workforce through an apprenticeship is in the single digits. But that's starting to change. The number of apprenticeships in the U.S. has increased by 42 percent since 2013.
South Carolina has bet heavily on them. The state gives employers tax incentives to hire apprentices and is trying to steer young people — some only 16 years old — into apprenticeship programs. Proponents of apprenticeships, which include Trump administration officials looking to expand their use, hold up South Carolina as a national model for how to provide companies with skilled employees and workers with a good living.
But critics also caution that while apprenticeships are a good option for some students, they aren't a panacea for the nation's widening wealth gap. As public investment in higher education falls and tuition climbs, apprenticeships are one of the few paths for kids from poor families to enter the middle class. And it is a path controlled not by educators or policy-makers but by businesses.
Rediscovering an old idea
For centuries, getting an apprenticeship was a ticket to a good job. In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice printer, and George Washington was an apprentice surveyor. In the 1950s, Elvis Presley was an apprentice electrician. If he hadn't gone on to making records and movies, Elvis' apprenticeship would have likely landed him solid work in the building trades.
In recent decades, as more and more Americans went to college and many students saw higher education as the best path to a good career, apprenticeships remained the province of blue-collar trades, a practical if less prestigious choice. But a number of employers and policy-makers are trying to revive the idea, especially with a shortage of skilled workers, and college increasingly unaffordable for many Americans.
Apprenticeships have a good payoff for workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 91 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs, with an average starting salary of more than $60,000 a year. Most apprentices are in the building trades, though there's a push to broaden into new industries and attract new groups of workers.
But a lot of people don't know this path exists. A little more than a half-million Americans are apprentices registered through the Department of Labor. About half of U.S. states do it this way; others have their own state offices. Typically, an apprenticeship combines on-the-job training with classes paid for by the employer. Apprentices eventually earn a nationally recognized certificate, so they can work anywhere in the country. For South Carolina, the formula seemed ideal.
The Charleston area was eagerly recruiting new businesses. With its port, mild weather and financial incentives, it's drawn major companies like Boeing and Volvo. But there weren't always enough locals to fill the new jobs. Companies were having to recruit out of state.
"We started realizing with the companies coming to town that we have to find a way to train the workforce here, in our region, so that they can move into those jobs," said Suzi Raiford, associate vice president of career preparedness programs for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
In 2007, the state launched Apprenticeship Carolina to deal with a shortage of skilled workers. "Certainly the technical college system was already in the workforce development business," said Tim Hardee, system president for the South Carolina Technical College System. "So it's kind of a K-12, technical college, business and industry partnership that enables the local employer ... to develop the workforce they need."
A youth apprentice program began in 2014, after a German manufacturer in Charleston asked to start training 16- and 17-year-olds like the company had back home.
In countries with robust apprenticeship programs, like Germany and Switzerland, apprentices begin in high school. But in the U.S., the registered apprentices average 27 to 30 years old. People like 34-year-old Paul Robling.
Looking for something different
As a young man, Robling took a couple of runs at finding a career. After high school, he joined the army and served three years in the infantry. When he got out, he found his skills weren't particularly marketable. So he went to college. "I was pretty much told that the only way you're going to get ahead in life is with a college degree," Robling said. "So I just joined in like every other college student."
He pursued an associate degree in information technology at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He realized too late he'd be a poor fit staffing a computer help desk. He didn't finish the degree and left owing $20,000 in student loans. It's a common predicament. About a fifth of Americans 25 and older attend college but leave without finishing their degrees.
Robling spent five years installing cable in people's homes. But it grew difficult to support a wife and four children on less than $20 an hour, and he saw no way to move up. He learned there was a big demand for machinists in Charleston, but he'd need to go back to school. This time, he did his research. "I couldn't make the same mistake twice," he said. "I had to find a way of doing something with very little college required."
Robling's search for a better career led him to Trident Technical College in Charleston, one of 16 technical colleges in the state that participate in apprenticeship programs. Since 2007, the state has produced more than 28,000 apprentices in fields ranging from advanced manufacturing to tourism.
At Trident, Robling met Mitchell Harp, the dean of apprenticeship programs. Harp helps employers create a plan for how the company will train the apprentice, what the apprentice will learn in class, and what skills the apprentice will have at the end.
Harp had been working with Eaton to create a new apprenticeship program and forwarded a handful of applicants, including Robling. Though the candidates were all inexperienced, one of Robling's hobbies made him stand out: In his free time, he did woodworking and had purchased a wood lathe. Robling's mechanical aptitude and character impressed the folks at Eaton, and they hired him.
For eight hours a day, Robling now works one-on-one with his mentor, learning to make precision tools. Then he heads to night classes at Trident.
Harp says he often hears from employers who are having trouble finding skilled workers, and he emphasizes to them the benefits of growing their own talent. "If you can hire an individual in their first semester of their training, put them in your apprenticeship where you grow them and mentor them, more than likely, they're going to stay with you, and you're going to get a lot of good talent," he said.
For the students, apprenticeships are a chance to move into jobs quickly with no prior experience. "I often tell people who come to me for apprenticeships, 'You're coming to Trident Technical College to get an education so you can get a job. I mean, that's what you're paying us for,'" Harp said. "'Well, what if I told you I could get you a job before you even started school or maybe the first semester in school?' And their eyes just open up."
It's also a chance to graduate debt-free. Employers cover any remaining tuition after state and federal grants have been applied. Harp tells students that having an apprenticeship is better than just learning on the job and better than just going to school.
"Look, I can teach you to draw blood in like five minutes," he said. "It's a very simple procedure. But until you do it 100 times, you're not going to be good at it. And that's what an apprenticeship is. You can learn something in a college or laboratory setting and still get the skill. But if you go to work, and you're doing it 100 times, you're going to get really good at it. And you're going to be able to apply what you see in the classroom in the real world."
More earnings, less debt
Economist Bob Lerman applauds the way South Carolina has worked to get companies on board with apprenticeships. Lerman is a fellow at the Urban Institute who's researched and written about apprenticeships for decades.
He's long been concerned about the large share of people he calls "the forgotten half," people who don't get college degrees and aren't set up for rewarding careers. "As an economist, I saw that we were spending a lot of money on higher ed, post-secondary ed, and even sometimes secondary ed, and we weren't getting the results we needed."
He noticed other countries were solving the problem through apprenticeships. And he saw apprenticeships could be particularly valuable for people who learn best by doing. "We really are disadvantaging a lot of people who might perform very well in the workplace but don't like to sit through large numbers of classes for many, many years," he said.
The U.S. spends far less on apprenticeships than Germany. U.S. employers are on the hook to pay for apprentices' tuition at technical colleges, while in Germany, education is publicly funded. And there's an additional challenge.
Harp concedes apprenticeships still suffer from an image problem. Among parents, there's a lingering perception that apprenticeships are "less than" going to college. In fact, students who earn a bachelor's degree, on average, will earn more in their lifetime.
"A parent would hear the word 'apprenticeship' and say 'Oh no, not my student. My student's going to a four-year so that's not for them,'" said Ellen Kaufman, the youth apprenticeship coordinator at Trident. "And I would have to explain that our apprentices very often do go on to get a four-year degree, and the nice thing is they have a company helping them pay for some of that tuition."
But the notion persists among parents that vocational training is for weaker students. "I would have parents saying, 'Well, my student doesn't really like school, doesn't do very well. Can you get him an apprenticeship?'" Kaufman said. "And I'd say, 'That's not what these are about. They're going to be in college classes. It's rigorous. It's demanding.'"
Robling's program is certainly demanding. He sees his kids for an hour and a half on weeknights in the small gap he has between his workday at Eaton and night school. It's been an adjustment for his kids to have their dad gone so much. "They wanted daddy to go to school, they wanted daddy to a get a better education and work a different job, and they wanted daddy to make some cool stuff," Robling said. "It's a bit tougher on my wife."
But he's making the most of it. With periodic pay raises over the course of his three-year apprenticeship, he'll be back to what he was making in the cable business, and when he finishes, he'll make more.
When he went to college the first time, he wanted to enjoy the college experience more than he actually wanted to go to college. This time, it's different. "Last time I went to school, when I left, I had a GPA of between 2.0 and 2.5 — so, low," he said. "Now, I'm on the dean's list."
Taking it to the kids
South Carolina had such success with apprenticeships that officials began pitching them in high schools. In 2014, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce began funding youth apprenticeships for juniors and seniors.
Sheniah Everson is the first youth apprentice at Burke High School in Charleston. Sheniah has to be super organized. She's 17 and a junior, but she only takes band and history at her high school. The rest of her classes are over at Trident Technical College, where she's in the Certified Nursing Assistant/Pre-Nursing program.
"I always knew that I would end up taking a couple college classes," Everson said. "But I never thought that I'd be graduating with my associate degree before I get my high school diploma." She will earn that associate degree next spring, for free. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce is paying her tuition. Her apprenticeship is at Roper Hospital in downtown Charleston.
"A lot of people my age don't get that opportunity to go in the hospital and actually shadow a doctor or work with nurses," she said. "I was really encouraged by the nurses that work there, and it made me want to go into the health care field."
Sheniah's mother, Undryell Everson, also works in health care, and she's proud of her daughter's apprenticeship. "I told her, I said, 'Girl, you really have gotten yourself into a great position.'" With an associate degree paid for, Undryell Everson is hopeful her daughter will avoid the $80,000 debt she racked up getting her own bachelor's and master's degrees.
There are about 90 high school apprentices at Trident working in fields ranging from engineering to culinary arts. This idea of reaching high school students isn't just happening in South Carolina. Wisconsin, North Carolina and Colorado are among a number of states investing in youth apprenticeships as a way to connect young people with careers.
For all their advantages, youth apprenticeships do come at a cost. Students typically must sacrifice most extracurricular activities. Instead they spend much of their time readying to enter the workforce. "I try to put it nicely," Kaufman said, "but 99 percent of the time, there simply is no time."
Proponents of apprenticeships are now building awareness among parents of younger children as well. Kaufman is seeing new interest among parents of middle-schoolers. "As soon as I mentioned, 'You know, this is a way to get an education and avoid student debt,' every parent sat up. They were listening in a way I didn't see a few years ago."
"We are infiltrating the districts with this information," said Suzi Raiford of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. "We want our students to be ready and skilled to fill that pipeline for business and industry."
Barriers to college
South Carolina is touting apprenticeships at a time when it's decreasing funding for higher education, and consequently college has become less affordable for families.
The state has reduced its spending on public colleges by about $2,000 per full-time student since 2008, said Sophia Laderman, senior policy analyst with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. The organization published a report earlier this year showing that 44 states haven't restored funding for public higher education to pre-recession levels. South Carolina is part of that national trend. To make up the difference, schools are having to raise tuition. In South Carolina, tuition now accounts for 65 percent of higher education funding.
Apprenticeships offer students who can't afford college another option — and some apprentices continue on to earn four-year degrees. But apprenticeship programs can't solve the larger college-affordability problem.
Still, there's no denying that for Paul Robling and a growing number of Americans, apprenticeships have been beneficial. In fact, Robling wishes he'd found his path to becoming a machinist sooner. He plans to make sure his own four children know there are multiple routes to finding good work they enjoy. It might involve a four-year degree; it might just require a two-year technical degree. He hopes their transition from high school to the workforce will be smoother than what he experienced. "I spent months trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I'll be able to help them figure out what they want to do," he said. "You've got to get a skill."
Betsy Towner Levine
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.
We're interested in hearing what impact APM Reports programs have on you. Has one of our documentaries or podcasts changed how you think about an issue? Has it led you to do something, like start a conversation or try to do something new in your community? Share your impact story.