COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | WILLIAM SMYTH

Apprenticeships or college: Which is the better fit?

High school seniors in San Diego and across the United States are nervously waiting for word from colleges and universities to find out whether they have been accepted to the colleges of their choice.

Meanwhile, juniors are gearing up to take their all-important college assessment tests. Some spend hours on prep classes and drills for these tests, which can make or break their chances of even being considered for a top college or university.

After they get the good news, what happens?

Some 80 percent of California high school seniors, 397,871 students, graduated in 2014, according to the California Department of Education. Of these graduates, about 63 percent continue on to a community college, public or private college or university in the United States.

How many will go on to achieve their goal of a college degree?

According to the last available data in 2010, 79,000 who had enrolled in community college had not earned an associate’s degree or transferred to a four-year institution after three years. Among those who had enrolled in a college or university, 38,000 had not yet earned a bachelor’s degree after six years.

Some were unprepared for college-level study. Their financial circumstances didn’t permit them to finish. They faced personal challenges. Some choose a different direction, such as entrepreneurship or military service.

Many faced the personal truth that no matter how much they were urged to attend college, it was not the right fit. They realized they were not succeeding and needed to consider an alternative path to employment and success in reaching their personal goals.

Apprenticeship can often provide a better fit for these students. Considering the recent support for increasing apprenticeship funding and support in the United States, when is the last time you heard from a current high school student that a teacher or counselor talked to him or her about apprenticeship programs?

Many Americans, including the apprentices and trainees attending the San Diego Associated Builders and Contractors Training Academy, are using apprenticeships today to achieve middle-class incomes. Too few educators and policymakers seem aware of this fact.

Out of 3 million high school graduates in the United States annually, only about 125,000 apprenticeship slots open for them. This is barely 10 percent of the opportunities offered in many other high-income nations. Youth employment rates are far higher in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Australia, all countries with strong apprenticeship programs.

U.S. companies already spend tens of billions of dollars on training and more than 20,000 of them offer apprenticeships. Many more could be encouraged to do so if the programs were in place.

Federal and state governments combined spend a measly $25 million to 40 million per year to encourage apprenticeships. This is a drop in the bucket compared to what federal and state governments spend on other postsecondary education alternatives, well over $200 billion.

Discussion and awareness cost us nothing. Educators should make students and their families aware that there are alternate education paths, and they include apprenticeships.

Look to this year’s ABC National Craft Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Three local craft champions from San Diego were among the 200 apprentices competing for medals in 11 craft categories.

First held in 1987, the competition’s purpose is to allow individuals training to be craft professionals the chance to showcase their advanced skills and high safety standards and to promote craft apprenticeship training in the construction industry.

The competition validates the career training process and help promotes the value of careers in construction. The two-day competition includes both a written exam and a hands-on, practical application where competitors demonstrate their high-level skills and safety best practices. The competitors must complete all work including sophisticated mathematics without calculators.

San Diego Sheet Metal Craft Champion, Kevin Strahler with West Coast Air Conditioning, represented San Diego and won a silver medal. This win brings the total to 17 medals won by San Diego competitors in 14 years of national competition, including a winning streak of five straight years.

ABC is committed to developing a world-class construction workforce and we are thrilled to provide the best craft trainees and apprentices in the industry an opportunity to showcase their abilities. Construction remains a tremendous career opportunity for millions across the country.

As the need for skilled workers grows, many countries recognize the importance of promoting the positive aspects of a career in the skilled trades and the need to overcome long-held stereotypes that a university education is the only route to financial, personal and social success.


Smyth is chief financial officer of Sherwood Mechanical and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego Apprenticeship Training Trust board of trustees.

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