If I could wave a magic wand, my first-choice economic reform would be an aggressively expanded national apprenticeship system, and a supportive public culture to go with it. The reason is that the downward spiral of working-class men is the country’s single most worrying social trend, and apprenticeships could make a real dent in it.
I don’t mean to imply that apprenticeships are unimportant for women. But women are, by and large, doing pretty well in today’s workforce. Their earnings, labor force participation, and rates of college completion have been rising for decades. Men, by contrast, have been dropping out of the workforce for decades, and the less education they have, the steeper the fall in workforce participation has been. In 2011, more than 90 percent of men with college degrees were in the workforce, a decline since the early 1970s but not much of one; among those with a high school diploma or less, by contrast, a quarter and a third, respectively, were out of the labor force. The rise of nonwork as a norm among less-educated American men is a dramatic, alarming, and, as far as I know, unprecedented development. (You can find more on the crisis of working-class men here.)
Just why so many men are unplugging from the job market is something of a mystery, but the decline of wages for men without college degrees is certainly part of the picture. “For males with less than a four-year college education, earnings fell in real terms [from 1979 to 2010], declining between 5 percent and 25 percent,” write the MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman in Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education, a superb paper recently published by Third Way, a centrist think tank. When the rewards of work decline, a decline in work effort can hardly be surprising.
But male workforce participation declined even in periods when job markets were tight, so cultural factors are likely also in play. The kinds of hands-on, manual jobs traditionally favored by working-class men are rapidly being automated; the sorts of people- and service-oriented jobs that are replacing them are harder to get non-college men into. Autor and Wasserman take note of “intriguing evidence” that information- and technology-rich work environments favor cognitive and interpersonal skills which women may, on average, be more likely to possess. I suspect deep issues involving masculine self-esteem are also in play. Three things really matter for success in life—work, education, and family—and increasingly, outside the ranks of the baccalaureate-holding elite, women have a comparative advantage in all three domains. This is something quite new in human affairs and has to come as a demoralizing shock to many blue-collar men. In any case, whatever the causes may be, the discouraging reality is that the economy is less and less able to integrate non-college men into the workforce.
It gets (even) worse. The reason to speak of a downward spiral, rather than just a downward trend, is that men, especially young men, who don’t get integrated into the workforce, and who therefore don’t have promising and stable earning prospects, are not very attractive as marriage prospects. Autor and Wasserman cite evidence of a strong relationship between changes in female marriage rates and changes in male hourly earnings, which provide “remarkably clear support for the proposition that changes in the labor market rewards impinge heavily on the marriage market.” A marriageability crisis is emerging in non-college-educated America: the marriage rates of men, which in the early 1970s were high across the board, now vary steeply with earnings. According to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, at the twentieth earnings percentile only about half of men between the ages of 30 and 50 are married, versus 80 percent or more in the upper brackets. Alas, men who are unmarried are less stable and less employable; alienation from the marriage market and from the labor market thus feed upon and exacerbate each other.
Worst of all, as marriage and stable jobs become more the exception than the rule in blue-collar and lower-income America, the interlocking cultures of work and marriage lose traction among kids. “A vicious cycle may ensue,” write Autor and Wasserman, “with the poor economic prospects of less-educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.” Inequality not only grows but propagates itself from parent to child; America divides into marital and educational haves and have-nots, increasingly living in separate worlds; and something disturbingly like a class structure emerges and solidifies.
If the problem is with non-college men, one answer seems simple enough: get more men through college. The returns to a bachelor’s degree are large and getting larger; women are responding to the market’s signal by flocking to universities. Men aren’t. Clearly, if more finished college, more would do well.
Encouraging college completion is certainly necessary. But it is clearly not sufficient. For decades, public policy has poured government money into student aid and other subsidies for higher education, which has helped many people afford bachelor’s degrees, which is good. By now, however, it is evident that the “B.A. for everyone” strategy fails to reach a very large segment of the population (especially but not exclusively male) for whom an academic program is simply not a good fit. “The United States’ academic-only strategy is ill-suited for a diverse population and for the multiple needs of the 21st-century labor market,” write Stuart Eizenstat and Robert Lerman. “A robust apprenticeship system would ensure that the impending manufacturing expansion succeeds in macroeconomic terms and widen the routes to rewarding careers for millions of workers.”
Apprenticeships combine supervised on-the-job learning—at real jobs, earning real paychecks—with related academic instruction, typically at community colleges or vocational institutes. “In Austria, Germany and Switzerland—countries with long histories of guilds and craftwork—55 to 70 percent of all young people enter apprenticeships,” Eizenstat and Lerman note. In the United States, by contrast, only about 4 percent of workforce entrants come through apprenticeship programs (according to a 2010 paper by Lerman for the Urban Institute). The whole idea of apprenticing has been culturally sidelined by the prestige and predominance of the college degree, which public priorities do much to support: “Government spending on colleges and universities tops $300 billion per year; outlays to apprenticeship programs total less than $40 million annually,” write Eizenstat and Lerman.
This is all the more a pity in that Lerman estimates that current demand could support a near-sextupling of formal apprenticeships. Despite the rise of automation, many employers still have trouble filling mid-skill jobs because of skill mismatches: what young people learn in school is not necessarily what employers need. That, of course, is not a problem with apprenticeship, where the employer is the teacher. Over time, if apprenticeship worked itself into the cultural mainstream, both demand and capacity could presumably grow still larger.
Another advantage of apprenticeship: it is an ancient and reassuringly familiar idea which, unlike, for instance, most kinds of education reform, seems to have no political enemies. Formal, federally certified apprenticeships have been around since the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937. President Obama touted the idea in his 2014 State of the Union speech and announced new grants for apprenticeships and a program to expand academic credit for apprentice training. Conservatives like the fact that the program is based on work rather than welfare, with employers rather than taxpayers picking up much of the tab. Moreover, according to Lerman, careful studies find that earnings gains and social benefits from apprenticeship are “extremely high.” Although even sneezing is difficult in Washington these days, apprenticeship would seem to offer a path of comparatively low friction and rich return.
So it is not crazy to wish that both parties would make a push for apprenticeship and do it in a big way, big enough to bring apprenticeship significantly closer to parity with college aid. That kind of commitment would not only bring new financial resources to bear: it would also steer apprenticeship into the cultural mainstream and perhaps even break the baccalaureate bottleneck. In that respect, I think of apprenticeship not just as a way to train people for jobs but also as a way to train the country to think differently about education.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Cato Institute. This essay was prepared as part of a special Cato online forum on reviving economic growth.