Apprenticeships: Useful Alternative, Tough to Implement

16 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2016

See all articles by Gail L. Heriot

Gail L. Heriot

American Civil Rights Project; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; Manhattan Institute

Date Written: November 17, 2016


A college education is not everyone’s cup of tea. The United States needs other ways to instill job skills in the younger generation. The German apprenticeship system is sometimes viewed as an appealing alternative. But substantially increasing apprenticeship opportunities in the United States may not be as easy or inviting as it sounds. The German model depends for its success on strong unions and professional licensing requirements. Applying the German method to the United States would require huge — and, for some, hugely unpopular — changes to the structure of the economy.

Successfully expanding the availability of apprenticeships in the United States will therefore require real thought. Any American-style apprenticeship model will need to deal effectively with the age-old problem of the “runaway apprentice” — the apprentice who leaves his employer after the employer has invested time and energy in training him, but before the apprentice has been useful enough to make the employer’s investment worthwhile.

In centuries past, the problem was dealt with by jailing runaway apprentices. Today, Germany instead denies them union membership or professional licenses. The dominant solution in the United States has been to try to teach job skills at publicly subsidized educational institutions, so students will emerge already valuable to employers, in theory making apprenticeships unnecessary. But this method has not been a smashing success. This paper discusses various ways to encourage apprenticeships — from ensuring that potential apprentices can borrow money to finance apprenticeships in the way they currently borrow for college (thus allowing the employer to avoid having to pay an apprentice more than he is initially worth) to more elaborate public subsidies and changes in the law.

Keywords: Education policy, college, employment

JEL Classification: J3, J00

Suggested Citation

Heriot, Gail L., Apprenticeships: Useful Alternative, Tough to Implement (November 17, 2016). Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 805, Available at SSRN:

Gail L. Heriot (Contact Author)

American Civil Rights Project ( email )

P.O. Box 12207
Dallas, TX 75225
United States


U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

1331 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Suite 1150
Washington, DC 20425

Manhattan Institute ( email )

52 Vanderbilt Avenue
New York, NY 10017
United States

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