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Apprentices at work

The Apprentice School

Apprenticeships often are touted as a neglected alternative to enrolling in college, one that leads to jobs. A smattering of colleges, however, think apprenticeships can go hand in hand with earning a degree.

Students at Old Dominion University, for example, now can do a four- to eight-year stint as apprentices at a nearby shipyard while simultaneously earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical or electrical engineering. The apprentices spend a day or two per week in the classroom and the rest of their workweek on the job at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Incoming apprentices earn $16 per hour at the shipbuilding company's Apprentice School. For the Old Dominion students, that works out to at least $225,000 during the course of their apprenticeships. They also get free tuition, fees, textbooks, a benefits package and a guaranteed job when they graduate.

“They come in earning a good living wage,” said Todd Estes, the Apprentice School's university liaison. “Not only is there no cost of instruction, but we actually pay them.”

Old Dominion's new apprenticeship began in 2013. It may be the first in the country to be tied to a bachelor's degree. And while the university is particularly well-placed for such a program -- given that a shipyard with 23,000 employees is in its backyard -- several experts said the apprenticeship could be a national model for other institutions to emulate with their local businesses.

Robert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University, is the founder of the American Institute for Innovative Apprenticeship. He said apprenticeships remain woefully underdeveloped in this country.

The numbers back him up. About 288,000 apprenticeships were filled in 2013, according to federal statistics, about 200,000 fewer than a decade ago. (That number grows to 375,000 when military programs are included.) By comparison, Germany has 1.8 million apprenticeships with about 500,000 sponsoring companies, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

Apprenticeships are different and more intensive than internships. An apprentice gig is typically formal training for a job, where the employer plans to hire the apprentice. And apprenticeships last longer and pay better than internships.

A better comparison is cooperative education. Northeastern University has the most widely acclaimed co-op program, where students combine classroom studies with full-time work for six months. The university's co-ops are with 2,000 partner employers in 69 countries.

While the co-op model is spreading in higher education, apprenticeships appear to be a tougher sell.

Relatively few colleges in this country have partnered with companies to offer apprenticeships that lead to degrees, Lerman said. The reason, he said, is inertia. But that may be changing, slowly. And community colleges are where most of the action is.

For example, lawmakers in South Carolina located the state's apprenticeship office within the technical college system, according to the Center for American Progress report. The left-leaning center, which said apprenticeships can help meet the demand for skilled workers, also praised Indiana's Ivy Tech, a statewide two-year college system, for its collaboration with employers on apprenticeships.

Ideally, experts said, community college programs are linked to degrees.

For example, North Carolina's Central Piedmont College offers an apprenticeship with Siemens USA. As U.S. News & World Report wrote, students at the college can earn an associate degree in mechatronics while working on building gas and steam turbines at a Siemens plant in Charlotte. The company pays for the degree. And graduates of the program automatically get a $55,000-a-year job with Siemens.

The Obama administration has done its part to encourage more apprenticeships. Last year the White House successfully found $100 million, a rare new federal funding stream, to create the American Apprenticeship Grant program. The U.S. Department of Labor is administering the competitive grants, which it said will go to public-private partnerships in high-growth fields.

A New Model

The bachelor's degree apprenticeship may only exist at Old Dominion.

The partnership between the university and the shipyard is a “natural fit,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale is a fan of the degree-linked apprenticeships. “The learning you're doing in school is reinforced on the job.”

Newport News Shipbuilding, which is owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, first approached Old Dominion to propose the program, university officials said. The company said it needed more employees with engineering degrees.

A key reason, according to the Apprentice School, is that former apprentices tend to become managers. And the degree can be an asset for employees who want to climb the ladder. Roughly 44 percent of the company's production managers are graduates of the Apprentice School, and 58 percent of general foremen are graduates.

“We're looking at career growth and commitment to the company,” said James H. Hughes, the school's manager of academics. “Over 80 percent of our graduates will be with the company at least 10 years.”

Estes said the Old Dominion partnership didn't grow out of a scarcity of applicants to the Apprentice School or to the shipyard itself. The goal, he said, is identifying future leaders and helping to develop the “highest-caliber engineer who could be hired.”

Old Dominion's new apprenticeship began last year with 15 students. There are two main paths into the program.

Current students at the university who have completed the equivalent of two years of relevant course work in engineering -- a minimum of 60 credits -- can apply. So can direct applicants who hold an associate of science or associate of arts and sciences in engineering.

Old Dominion worked on the program for three years, said Renee Olander, an associate vice president for regional higher education centers at the university and an associate professor of writing. One key step was for the two engineering departments to make shifts in course schedules for apprentices, to accommodate their schedules at the shipyard.

Students must complete both intensive degree work on campus, she said, as well as working full-time as shipbuilders.

“You wear a hard hat,” said Olander. “It's a hard program.”

However, apprentices also are integrated into the upper-class population at the university. Olander said they get “full access to all academic support services, as well as recreation, social, honors and sports activities.”

More colleges will try something like Old Dominion's apprenticeships, Lerman predicts, because the payoffs for students, employers and colleges are too much to ignore.

“The logic is inexorable,” he said.

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