Last night I heard Robert Lerman of American University make the case for apprenticeships as an alternative to standard academic education.  He got considerable pushback from the audience.  Some of the leading complaints:

1. Unlike standard academic education, which prepares you for a wide variety of careers, apprenticeships only prepare you for one career.

2. Apprenticeships may sound like a good idea, but they’ve failed the market test in the U.S. labor market.

3. Institutional barriers make it very difficult for the U.S. to use apprenticeships.

My responses:

1. A standard academic education prepares you for a “wide variety of jobs”?  That’s wildly optimistic.  It’s closer to the truth to say that a standard academic education prepares you for zero jobs.  This is clearest for K-12 education in bad school districts, but also holds for most college majors.  Even many majors that sound “vocational” prepare students for occupations with very few openings – see psychology and journalism.  The smart slogan: It’s better to start preparing students for one career than keep preparing them for no career at all.

2. Government spends almost a trillion dollars a year on standard academic education, and you claim that apprenticeships have “failed the market test”?!  Apprenticeships would be far more common if government didn’t subsidize the competition to death.  Imagine if we actually voucherized existing education spending and let students spend their vouchers to subsidize their own apprenticeships.  I say apprenticeships would become common almost overnight.

3. There’s no need to invoke “institutional barriers” when standard education gets almost a trillion dollars a year in subsidies.  It makes a lot more sense to blame public opinion, which recoils in egalitarian horror at the idea of a “two-tier” system where bad students learn a trade and good students go to college.  The end result, of course, is that bad students don’t learn a trade, don’t go to college, and – as Charles Murray reminds us – become bums and criminals at shocking rates.