Stagnant wages among men without college degrees and rising unmarried parenthood among high school graduates with little or no college education represent two critical challenges facing the United States. Both trends increase income inequality and prevent people from entering into and remaining in the middle class.

One symptom of the problem is the declining labor force participation of men at middle levels of education and at prime working ages. Nearly half of 25- to 49-year-old men are high school graduates (or GED completers) without an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Long-term trends as well as current economic weakness have been bad news for this group. For men with no more than a high school degree, joblessness doubled from 7.5% in 1979 to 15.5% in 2007 just before the Great Recession. As of early 2013, 22% of these prime-age men were not employed. Over the same period, married fatherhood plummeted among high school graduate men, falling from 65% in 1979 to 38% in 2013. Especially since joblessness is associated with negative family outcomes, helping young people obtain better jobs and earn more are critical tasks for this generation and for the welfare of the next generation.

Expanding apprenticeship can play a key role. Apprenticeships help young people gain mastery in an occupation as well as other workplace skills; they supply employers with workers who achieve strong technical and employability skills. Studies show U.S. apprenticeships are extraordinarily cost-effective. Analyses conducted for Washington State’s Workforce Board show that taxpayers net almost three times their spending on apprenticeships within two and a half years of the program’s completion, and the combined benefits accruing to participants and taxpayers are about five times the costs. By the time former apprentices reach age 65, benefits to taxpayers reach $23 for each dollar spent.

Apprenticeships train people by combining work-based learning with classroom instruction in a unified program that leads to a recognized and valued occupational credential. Young people, especially young men, who hate sitting through classes all day can spend part of their time making something, learning by doing, and seeing an immediate application of their course work. Trainees earn money and contribute to production while they learn. Apprentices graduate with a sense of pride and identity as a member of a community of practice. Mentoring is built into the apprenticeship process, with employers and trainers having a real stake in the young person’s success.

Apprenticeships help young people gain mastery in an occupation as well as other workplace skills. And they’re extraordinarily cost-effective.

Expanding apprenticeship is feasible in the U.S., as the recent growth in South Carolina’s apprenticeship initiative is proving. The extraordinary expansion in Britain demonstrates how apprenticeships can succeed in relatively free labor markets. Achieving results in the U.S. will require increases in funding that are minuscule in comparison to college subsidies. Even tripling the federal and state funding for apprenticeships would amount to about 2% of the 2013 increase in funding for college loans. Failing to provide even minimal funding for apprenticeships means neglecting the young people who prefer work-based learning.

The key for a successful and widespread program is to attract large numbers of employers to create apprenticeships that meet occupational standards. Today, only about 20,000 U.S. employers offer apprenticeships compared to over 100,000 employers in Britain, with a population about one-fifth that of the U.S.

To bring the U.S. program to scale, I suggest several initiatives, including:

  • national and state leadership and creating a brand (Apprenticeship America?) for apprenticeship,
  • developing systems for matching potential apprentices and employers,
  • making Pell grants and Trade Adjustment Assistance compatible with apprenticeship training,
  • establishing a performance-based, federal-state matching fund to support a business-friendly staff to market and provide technical assistance directly to individual employers. The staff would show the benefits of apprenticeships to firms and assist in the creation of programs at the firm level.
  • giving state-level incentives to high schools and community colleges to market apprenticeships and offer the related classroom instruction, and
  • building websites to provide reliable information about how to start apprenticeships and where apprenticeship slots are available, and ideally to assist with the process of matching prospective apprentices with apprenticeship openings.

A robust apprenticeship system can generate skill and wage growth for large numbers of young people, especially those who do not obtain a bachelor’s degree. As apprenticeships enhance youth development and employability skills in such areas as communication, problem-solving, and teaching others, the skills required for healthy couple relationships will also improve. With added earnings and the maturation that deepens as people move from apprentice to master, young people will be well-equipped to contribute to the nation’s productivity and, more importantly, to build strong marriages and families.