The state of American education is in turmoil from kindergarten through college.    People are asking serious questions about the goal of education. It is generally held that a good education provides the path to success in America. But, even at the pre-college levels, children are under performing at an alarming rate while we continue to believe that a college education, for which many children are ill prepared, is the main avenue to success in America.

   Perhaps we should pause and critically question whether that is indeed the case. We know that although Bill Gates qualified for entry into a top college, it is rumored that he never graduated from college and yet he went on to become one of the ten most successful people in the country, at intermittent times being the richest man in the world. He is not the only non-college graduate to reach great heights of success in the world. And if exception proves the rule, then, although a college education remains a good path for many people’s success, it may be a hindrance to others. 

     What other paths to success should we be considering, one might ask? Apprenticeships, whereby young people gain the knowledge and skills needed in industry and other places of employment, comes to mind. In many of the trades there is no need for a college degree. The skills are learned by osmosis and practice. Centuries ago, these skills were learned through the trade guilds via the practice of apprenticeships. A master horseshoe maker or blacksmith would apprentice younger ones to the trade and as the apprentice gained skills and himself mastered the trade, he was then able to move on to his own shop, take on apprentices of his own, while providing a living for his family. Apprentices with the right aptitude could perfect essentials skills in much less time than it takes to get a bachelor of arts degree from a college.

   One would be surprised to learn that in urban areas like Baltimore, graduates from local colleges are glad if they can find a job that pays $30,000.00 per year. Just imagine that for a moment. A student borrows large sums of money, very easily in many cases, to finance majoring in some useless college degree, to graduate with massive debt and get a job which pays a salary below a living wage. They can hardly repay their college debt. They can hardly think about getting a loan for a house or making plans to get married and support a family with kinds. 

   In recent generations, right here in Baltimore, many men who never went to college gained jobs at places like Sparrows Point in the steel industry. They learned the necessary skills, gained good pay as union members and they married wives who were often teachers and social workers. These people went on to lead happy family lives in homes they bought. They could take vacations to nearby beaches and dine out from time to time. 

   That is no longer true because the jobs at Sparrows point are gone. But there are many other skilled jobs, in hospitals and at tech companies that could fill the gap. Many of these jobs do not need any college degree and employers may need to model their hires after the ancient practice of the Guild Houses by apprenticing young adults to these jobs and paying them entry-training-wages until they have mastered the particular skills needed for the job. They could begin by training in elementary skills, adding more intricate stages as the apprentice progresses.

   I recently heard a story about someone, locally, who is currently doing something like what is being proposed here. The story relates to the practice whereby through certain metrics developed to test the aptitude of young people who may not want to go to college, youngsters with a proven aptitude for technology, and that is a large pool of young people who love to play video games et al, are then hired at minimum wages while they are trained in the technology at hand, apprentice style. After they have mastered the skills being taught, the skills needed by the growing technology companies all over the country, these young people are guaranteed hires in their new fields at jobs which offer salaries of $90,000.00 and sometimes more! Could you believe that? 

   That model, now that it has been tested, can be taken and applied in other fields. Hospitals need technicians and other skilled persons in various departments. They can develop the metrics to test the aptitudes that fit the job skills that are in play. They can then hire the trainees, apprentices at minimum training wages, give them the skills of the jobs and after mastery, make them permanent hires or recommend them to other institutions. Bright young people with the right aptitude could often master the skill sets in quick time. Certainly, this can be done in less time than it takes to get a degree in some major that offers no job skills, and without the debt from student loans.

   There is another story I heard about a young man who was working at a gas station. He was challenged to take an aptitude test in technology and did so well that he was recruited, apprenticed in the field and in very quick time was making almost $100,000.00 in the growing tech space. Imagine just how many able young people are out there in the world waiting for opportunities like this to change their futures from gas station operator to master of Tech skills.

    You know that welders, plumbers and even carpenters make far more money than most graduates from colleges? We would as a society do well to think outside the convention education-box while remembering that jobs developed via apprenticeships do not carry those massive student loan debts that burden so many in our community.

Peter Bramble
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