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Labor Department Chief Lays Out the Promise (and Problem) With Apprenticeships

They are a ladder to prosperity, but they’re suffering from problems of perception.

Ap­pren­tice­ships are a path to prosper­ity, and they could be much more so if people would drop their pre­con­ceived no­tions about them, Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez said Tues­day.

Perez high­lighted a wo­man he met in Los Angeles: She bounced around jobs, struggled to find a ca­reer path, un­til she landed a uni­on ap­pren­tice­ship in con­struc­tion. Now, she’s help­ing build the city’s new light-rail sys­tem, a job Perez said is provid­ing se­cur­ity for her and her three chil­dren.

But Perez ac­know­ledged that there’s a men­tal shift that needs to take place in or­der to drastic­ally in­crease ap­pren­tice­ships, which couple on-the-job train­ing with in­struc­tion in a highly skilled oc­cu­pa­tion. “I think the biggest at­ti­tu­din­al ad­just­ment we have to do with a lot of par­ents is there are mul­tiple path­ways to prosper­ity,” Perez said. “Ap­pren­tice­ship is one, a four-year de­gree is an­oth­er, com­munity col­lege, etc.”

With this week mark­ing the in­aug­ur­al Na­tion­al Ap­pren­tice­ship Week, Perez joined Steve Clem­ons—The At­lantic’s Wash­ing­ton ed­it­or-at-large—to dis­cuss how ap­pren­tice­ships help launch Amer­ic­ans in­to the middle class at a Na­tion­al Journ­al LIVE event at the New­seum titled “Con­ver­sa­tion with U.S. Sec­ret­ary of Labor.”

In Septem­ber, Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced that the De­part­ment of Labor had awar­ded $175 mil­lion in Amer­ic­an Ap­pren­tice­ship Grants to 46 pub­lic-private part­ner­ships in an ef­fort to train more than 34,000 people over the next five years. In his open­ing re­marks, Perez high­lighted this in­vest­ment and said ap­pren­tice­ship should be ex­pan­ded in­to oth­er high-growth areas, such as health care, in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, and cy­ber­se­cur­ity. Obama’s goal, stated in his 2014 State of the Uni­on ad­dress, is to double the amount of ap­pren­tice­ships by 2019—a man­tra Perez called “double and di­ver­si­fy.”

“We know ap­pren­tice­ship works,” Perez said. “The ‘earn while you learn’ mod­el is tried and true.”

Some have a mind-set that the choice is either col­lege or an ap­pren­tice­ship, yet the two should be in­teg­rated, Perez said. He poin­ted to the fact that more than 200 col­leges are par­ti­cip­at­ing in the Re­gistered Ap­pren­tice­ship Col­lege Con­sor­ti­um, which gives col­lege cred­its to those who are do­ing ap­pren­tice­ships.

An­oth­er shift that needs to take place is in the way Amer­ic­ans get hired. It’s quite com­mon, Perez said, for Amer­ic­ans to get jobs through their own net­works. “In my ex­per­i­ence, the in­form­al grapev­ine has not been friendly for people of col­or—that has not worked as well for them. And so we need to move away from that in­form­al grapev­ine. … [We need] to move in­to a world in which people are truly judged by the con­tent of their char­ac­ter.”

Perez then brought the con­ver­sa­tion full circle, say­ing that he be­lieves ap­pren­tice­ships not only help Amer­ic­ans reach the middle class, but that they provide much more.

“That’s why in our world of ap­pren­tice­ship, we’re not simply try­ing to grow the quant­ity of ap­pren­tice­ship,” Perez said. “We’re try­ing to change the face of ap­pren­tice­ship be­cause zip codes should nev­er de­term­ine des­tiny.”