Industry leadership is critical for moving apprenticeship forward. It is the focus of the Administration’s recent Executive Order and its call for creating “industry-certified” apprenticeships. It is also the most oft-cited feature of successful apprenticeship systems in countries like Germany and Switzerland. But what, exactly, do we mean by industry leadership?
Leadership on apprenticeship certainly means that employers should do more to invest in and train their future workforce. That means doing more on-the-job training. But because apprenticeship also includes structured classroom education, it also means playing a larger role to shape experiences in the classroom.
To lead, you need power. And in American education, decision-making power is shared—and hotly contested—across a variety of actors including state, federal and local governments as well as individual schools and colleges. Employers are not generally among the list of stakeholders at the table when it comes to local education policy. In fact, industry’s power in American education is more akin to what political scientist Jospeh Nye would call “soft power” – or the ability to persuade rather than coerce.
A new body of research brings rigor to that notion, suggesting that “hard” decision-making power in American career and technical education overwhelmingly rests within our education systems, and not with employers. That power sharing dynamic--or lack thereof--stands in stunning contrast to countries like Switzerland, Austria and Germany where there is significant industry participation in designing the career and technical education offered in secondary and postsecondary schools. The research posits that it’s the lack of employer power that makes career and technical education here in the U.S. so different from systems abroad where around half of all upper secondary students participate in apprenticeship programs.
The KOF Education-Employment Linkage Index, developed by the KOF Swiss Economic Institute at ETH Zurich in partnership with the Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB), uses a survey tool to assess how well actors from 18 education and employment systems around the world share power over key career and technical education decisions. The index looks at every point of contact during the development, delivery, and updating of a career and technical education program. For example, who has decision power over curriculum content? Where do apprentices learn practical material? Do they learn it in the workplace? And when technology or labor market demands change, who has the power to initiate a revision in the curricula?
The study focused on countries with either strong general education systems (high 2014 PISA scores) or strong youth labor markets (measures of both employment and job-quality). While policymakers around the globe have a keen interest in supporting both goals, power-sharing between education and industry was greatest in nations with stronger youth labor markets. This research suggests that when education and industry share power, they are forced to compromise. Shared decision-making balances asymmetries in resources and information available to both sides, and helps align incentives in ways can lead to better labor market outcomes for youth. For example, a local graphic designer knows which kinds of technology skills are most valuable within the industry, but lacks information on how to update the graphic design CTE course in a local high school. The high school’s graphic design teacher may know that technology and skills are changing in the industry, but have no access to new software programs or equipment. A formal power sharing process could make it easier to update the course and provide students access to new equipment. But in the U.S. today, such a mutually beneficial process is more anecdote than reality.
The survey makes clear what many of us already know; in the U.S., there is very little power sharing between employers and school leaders. Some might say for good reason. American educators are understandably quite wary of aligning their curricula too closely with the needs of industry out of concern that it would provide an overly narrow learning experience to students.
This doesn’t mean that American education leaders wouldn’t welcome more engagement with industry. The application of the Index in the U.S. was actually commissioned by CareerWise Colorado, as part of an effort to build a youth apprenticeship system from scratch in the state. State education leaders are using the survey results to help target their efforts to engage industry in their efforts to build a youth apprenticeship system and connect it to high schools. To be successful, they will need businesses and schools to be open to a new relationship, one with different rights and responsibilities for employers.
Given what the survey tells us about the lack of formal – and even informal – participation by industry in American education, one might question whether efforts to strengthen career and technical education and expand apprenticeships are doomed. We often hear that such engagement with education just isn’t in the "DNA" of American employers, or that in Germany and Switzerland industry training is “cultural.” But that would be a mistake. By looking at these issues through the lens of power, instead of “culture,” the research demonstrates how deliberate steps can be taken to integrate industry more tightly into American education decision-making.
So what deliberate steps could American firms take to have more say in career and technical education? First, they can invest in it. Swiss, German and Austrian firms have a greater say over education decisions because they are heavily invested in the quality of the outcomes. That’s the only way employers believe they will see a return on that investment so they are engaged in education decisions at all levels. In those countries, from industry associations at the national level, down to the local employers, all have skin in the game. They develop skills standards, curricula, and student assessments, provide on-the-job training, purchase and maintain equipment, and even train teachers in the latest industry practices. They are fully integrated within both the policy and delivery of career and technical education because they share responsibility for its quality.
That level of integration is not possible overnight, nor one employer at a time. Which raises the second step American employers could take to have more influence over education: work with one another. A key feature of central European career and technical education is that it reflects the skills needs of an industry as a whole, not any single employer. Well before students enter a classroom, employers in an industry sector—from multinationals to SMEs—come together, identify shared skills needs, and communicate those clearly to educators. Educators can’t change curricula or class schedules on a dime for every single employer’s needs. But high quality career and technical education must respond when employers work together, pool their demand for talent and invest in training.
So is American industry ready to take greater power, and importantly, the responsibility that comes with it? Employers working together to invest in their future talent may be the biggest culture shift yet.