Getting a Head Start on Career Education: Mary Alice McCarthy of New America Explains How Work-Based Learning Can Be Better Implemented in K12
In the 21st century, the world of work is constantly changing. This podcast series, Reimagining Career Pathways, will explore the needs of the future workforce, rethinking traditional education pathways to connect students today with the in-demand jobs and skills of the future.
While in many ways academics and college preparation have become increasingly more rigorous over the years, the path to entering the labor market is still enigmatic to many young people today. According to Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America, exposing young people to career options early on can give them a better idea of what fields they want to work in when they start, and, most importantly, graduate from college.
“A lot of students enrolled in college really don’t have a good sense of how you move into the labor market,” says Mary Alice. “We don’t give students enough opportunities to learn in very practical and sort of hands-on ways about careers in different professions.”
“Sometimes their understanding of sort of what jobs or careers are out there are limited to what their parents do, or what sort of close relatives do, and that can be pretty limiting.”
Apprenticeship programs provide hands-on job experience, at little cost. So why aren’t apprenticeship programs a more-popular option in lieu of, or in conjunction with, a college degree? Mary Alice says that the biggest obstacle to the growth of U.S. apprenticeships is that programs can be difficult for students to find.
“We have high schools and colleges in every single community in the United States. This is where young people are. This is where everyone goes to get education and skills. Ironically, in the United States our apprenticeship system has developed completely independently and sort of separate from our formal education system. And I would say that is the biggest single barrier on its growth and expansion today.”
Listen in to our interview with Mary Alice McCarthy and guest host Kevin Fudge of ASA to learn more about what can be done to expand career education options and break down the stigma against apprenticeship programs.
Kevin Fudge: Hi, this is Kevin Fudge. I’m the Director of Consumer Advocacy and the Ombudsman of American Student Assistance. I’ll be your host for this EdTech Times series: Reimagining Career Pathways. Today we’re speaking with Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America. Hi Mary Alice, how are you doing today?
Mary Alice McCarthy: I’m doing great. Thanks, Kevin. Happy to be here.
Kevin Fudge: So in a sentence or two, could you introduce yourself and all the work you do at New America?
Mary Alice McCarthy: Yeah great, I’d love to. So my name is Mary Alice McCarthy and I direct the Center on Education and Skills at New America. The center sits in our broader education policy program but we focus very specifically on that intersection between our education policies and programs and our systems for workforce development, job training and career and technical education. So we’re sort of the the the center that focuses on where education meets the labor market. Our goal is to broaden the um sort of opportunities and models that people have to gain education and skills that lead to good jobs. Sometimes that means through alternative pathways to and through higher education. Sometimes it also means just helping sort of lift up alternative models for gaining education and skills. So we look at things like apprenticeship and work-based learning and also other types of innovative job training programs.
Kevin Fudge: Excellent. That’s great. So along those lines, we’re talking about systems and like the P-16 pipeline, from early childhood development all the way through secondary education. How do we help prepare students earlier for the transition from education to career? Like how do we help them understand what types of pathways options prepare them for their careers at an earlier age than we do now?
Mary Alice McCarthy: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it’s one that a lot of us are grappling with. I mean the truth is, that the labor market is kind of a mystery to most young people in our country today. We keep it kind of a mystery for students both in and throughout our K-12 system and even into college. A lot of students enrolled in college really don’t have a good sense of how you move into the labor market. How do you get that particular careers. What it means to get there. What are the steps to get there. We don’t give students enough opportunities to learn in very practical and sort of hands-on ways about careers in different professions. So as a result, they can often spend a lot of time very confused about what they want to do. And sometimes their understanding of sort of what jobs or careers are out there are limited to what their parents do or what sort of close relatives do. And that can be pretty limiting. We need to start much earlier in middle school and high school. And what countries that do this very well do is that they start talking to young kids about careers in middle school, and start exposing them. One of the things we can do just they can’t get kids out into workplaces at a much earlier age.
Mary Alice McCarthy: We can do a lot more visual mapping of how people can get into careers, what those careers are, and what the steps are from high school into college and into the labor market, and moving up. We can have business people and employers do a lot more, and you know just professionals, but a lot more visiting inside our schools and sort of come and talk to students and just be interviewed and very sort of regular terms of like, how did you get into the job you do? What was the way that you did it? We can also provide a lot more work-based learning opportunities to young people, particularly in high school. Young people today are less likely to work, even in summer jobs, than they were just a few decades ago. And again, work experience really sort of is what opens up for people the understanding of what the world of work is like, and how they can apply what they’re learning at school to actual ways of making money and earning a living and then being independent and self-sufficient. So in general, we just need to break down these walls between our schools being in one place in the world of work and the labor market being in another place.
Kevin Fudge: Right. I think one of the ways in the past, or the traditional sense of getting kids interested in careers have been apprenticeship programs, where you can sort of be part of what’s going on. You know, what are some of the perceived drawbacks and challenges associated with apprenticeship programs today?
Mary Alice McCarthy: Yeah. Apprenticeship is a great way of exposing young people to the world of work, and sort of getting them learning and working at the same time. So in terms of drawbacks, I’d be hard pressed to really think of any specific drawbacks. Over 80 percent of registered apprentices finish their programs, which can last anywhere from one to four years long. Over 80 percent of them will then move straight into a job. That’s much higher than is true for our traditional college students, who many fewer of them complete their college program and then that transition into employment generally takes a much longer time. Those apprentices often move into jobs where the average starting wage is over 50 thousand dollars a year. That’s absolutely on par with what people earn after getting a bachelor’s degree. And then they do that generally without any student debt. They generally do not have to take on any sort of debt in order to pay their apprenticeship programs. So the biggest sort of problem with our apprenticeship system is that there are not very many of them. They are very very difficult to find. When I talk to young people about what an apprenticeship is and how it gives them an opportunity to earn and learn at the same time, the next question is always where do I sign up? How can I find one? But our apprenticeship program here in the United States is extremely small.
Mary Alice McCarthy: On average, every year, we only enroll about 500,000 people and are registered in our federally registered apprenticeship system. Compare that to how many students enrolled in college every year and you can see just the massive difference in scale.
Mary Alice McCarthy: I’d say that the next questions are like, What’s so hard about growing them? What would it mean to expand them? And I’d say the number one challenge there is getting—first of all, getting employers onboard. American employers are just not very familiar with apprenticeship. It’s not a model that is very widespread here. And so, even if an employer wants to do an apprenticeship program, they’re like that sounds like a good idea, they often don’t know where to start. How do you set up one of these programs? What does it mean to do that? So capacity is another big challenge. Like even for employers who are ready to do it, they’re going to have a hard time finding folks who can help them do it.
Mary Alice McCarthy: Another important challenge, then, is figuring out how schools who do who wants to participate in these programs, how they can how they can do the financing of it. This is particularly true for the postsecondary part for apprenticeships that for example connect to community college or even university. One of the big challenges is, who pays the tuition for that apprentice when they’re taking those courses in community college? Who’s going to pay for that? Is the apprentice going to pay for it? Is the employer going to pay for it? In countries that have these systems that are very large and expansive, they figure that out and they’re generally supported through taxpayer dollars. Or some combination of taxpayer dollars and employer contributions. Here in the United States, local places that do apprenticeship programs have to figure that out themselves. Which is very much a kind of a one off and that’s a challenge and a limitation.
Kevin Fudge: Well it sounds to me that you’re expanding the definition of apprenticeships. So there’s this idea that apprenticeships might be limiting in a way that college isn’t like you go to college and the opportunities are limitless. You can major whatever you want. There’s all these clubs. You can find out about yourself. So how do we counteract the perception that that Apprentice equals trade and limits opportunities in a way that college doesn’t?
Mary Alice McCarthy: You sort of honed in on one of the most important challenges but also in the areas where things are changing in really exciting ways. So today as our apprenticeship system exists it’s true that about 80 percent of those apprenticeship programs are in either the building trades or in manufacturing. But we’re seeing a lot of growth in apprenticeship in new industries like healthcare, like cybersecurity and IT, like financial services, transportation and logistics, supply chain management. So into some new areas. And these are areas, though, that in order to to move forward in these areas and move into these sectors and move forward in these careers, people need college degrees. Right? In the construction trade and the building trades, really, you don’t have to have a college degree. You can get Journeyman’s card and you can have a whole successful career without that. But for apprenticeships, people need to be able to earn not just a Journeyman’s card—that’s the official credential of an apprentice—they also need to be able to earn a college degree.
Mary Alice McCarthy: Because you just can’t get a job as a licensed practical nurse, for example, unless you have that occupational license and usually some sort of degree. You can’t get a job in financial services if you don’t have a degree. So we are seeing a lot more partnerships with community colleges and apprenticeships and employers where the program culminates in an associate’s degree. We’ve even seen a few that culminate in a bachelor’s degree. We are seeing that there’s no reason that it can’t happen it just takes some work on the part of the of the college and the university to figure out how to structure the coursework and also how to assess the learning that’s taking place on the job for credit, so that they can apply that towards a degree program. And it’s really what we’re excited about here at New America and it’s what we’re trying to help develop and expand through our work.
Kevin Fudge: How do you prevent tracking? I think the biggest pushback advocates for these type of educational opportunities find is that you’re only recommending these type of careers based on certain socioeconomic status. And so how do we stop people from getting siloed in a particular career based on what socioeconomic status they come from?
Mary Alice McCarthy: Yeah. Yeah. I know, it’s a great question. And you know it’s such an important one, and one we’re also really tackling here at New America. And thinking about how to make sure that we’re building a focus on equity into apprenticeship from the very beginning. In our current apprenticeship system, apprentices are overwhelmingly male. Again, more than 80 percent of our current apprentices are male.
Mary Alice McCarthy: Those apprentices in turn tend to be in their programs in construction and manufacturing—which also are very well paying. Okay? Apprentices who are women are more likely to be in things like health care apprenticeships, apprenticeships in early education, apprenticeships in the service sectors that are not particularly well-paid. An important point of divide is that men go into apprenticeship programs that are very well paying, that generally lead to very good sustainable careers. The women tend to go into programs in female dominated occupations that don’t pay as well. But then within the apprenticeship programs too, the ones that are male dominated, they are overwhelmingly white. And communities of color, African-American and Hispanic men in particular, are strongly underrepresented in these high quality apprenticeship programs. So in this case, it’s almost like the reverse of tracking, where students from lower income or more disadvantaged backgrounds are being tracked away from the high quality apprenticeships and into low quality vocational education programs and for-profit colleges that aren’t nearly as good. So I would say tracking is a big problem across all of these programs. It’s just—the problem is different with our voc-ed programs or you know low quality certificates and CTE programs that some like for profit colleges. There we see students being tracked into those who were going to be a great risk of debt. And those are not programs that lead to good jobs. In our apprenticeship programs, the problem is almost the opposite—that the really good programs are still the preserve of young white men for the most part. So it sort of operates in sometimes unexpected ways.
Kevin Fudge: Yeah well you just give me a great idea. It’s almost like we could take the word back. Right? We could take the word back take the word tracking back and put a positive spin and say, if you’re on the right track, you know, this could lead to a great opportunity. And you know, I think one of the things that you mentioned again is that the for profit trade schools, or for profit career and technical education have sort of been filling that void, and it may lead me down a path that the student might not be successful as if they were in a different type of track or program. So it’s not a bad thing necessarily. If the outcomes are what everybody wants, and I think that’s what we’re working towards.
Kevin Fudge: So you mentioned specific programs and community colleges that have the associates the bachelor degrees. I was curious to know, are there any states that are making an effort to make this not just a one off at community colleges within their jurisdiction, but really a statewide effort to say, let’s connect the programs with the education with earlier awareness, early intervention. And that can be models from other states to follow.
Mary Alice McCarthy: Yeah. And I’m so glad you asked about that. And we are seeing that it, in early stages, but we are seeing that. The state of Colorado really jumps to mind right away. Under Governor Hickenlooper, they’ve had a multi-year effort underway now to sort of build apprenticeship programs in their high schools and connect them to the community college system systematically across the state.
Mary Alice McCarthy: Again, it’s still early days, but they are trying to think much more at that systems level. Washington state is also embarking on a similar effort. In South Carolina, they’ve actually set up a statewide program that is in our statewide office that sits in the South Carolina Career and Technical College System, that sort of helps connect employers to colleges rather than each college having to figure out how to work with each employer one by one statewide office can sort of help that whole process and sort of standardize things and also get the programs registered in a much more timely fashion. So we’re seeing a lot of interest in that. Because I think, again, governors are realizing that apprenticeship can be a really high quality economic development strategy, better connecting businesses and employers across the whole state to the states whole education system.
Kevin Fudge: And so building on that, do you think there are any countries that are doing this really well that we might be able to borrow from?
Mary Alice McCarthy: There have been a number of German and Swiss companies that have set up plants in the southeast of the United States—in North Carolina South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. And these are companies like Volkswagen and BMW and Bosch and Siemens. They started doing this back in the early 2000s and really got a apprenticeship going and on the map there. And so they’ve just been a huge help. I would say they were you know just a big part of making community colleges in that region understand how to do apprenticeships and build the capacity to do so. They provide a lot of technical assistance. So, there are lots of good opportunities to be able to leverage German and Swiss companies and German and Swiss know how on how to set up these programs and a lot of states have been doing that.
Mary Alice McCarthy: I also say we have something to learn from the United Kingdom. They set a goal of significantly expanding the size of their apprenticeship system. They focused a lot on setting up stronger connections between their higher education system and their apprenticeship system. And they created these things called Degree Apprenticeships. And they’re going to get around exactly the issue that we were talking about. Like most careers today require you to have a college education or college degree at some point. So how you pay this really great education and learning model which is apprenticeship and they get to a degree? And so they they have a model there. We’ve looked at that and use that here in America and we’ve incorporated some of what they were doing and the some recommendations we have for amending the Higher Education Act to include a definition of degree apprenticeship and the definition of what a student apprentice would be in higher education. So I think we do have a lot to learn and at the same time I think yes this is a pretty innovative place and are very decentralized education system, we are also sort of seeing some really exciting and innovative ways of doing apprenticeship here that other countries can probably learn from us.
Kevin Fudge: What is the most effective path to implementing these types of changes to apprenticeships, to our enhanced pathways for career development on a much wider scale. Like, who’s going to play the biggest role in this? What do you think is the best way to possibly to make this a greater skill and to really enhance everything?
Mary Alice McCarthy: We think a lot about scale. Our apprenticeship system in the United States is tiny. It’s absolutely tiny. We believe that the best way to get to scale, first of all, and really the only way is to connect our apprenticeship system to our K12 and higher education systems. We really want to expand it into a much larger population and into many more careers. People have to be able to go to a high school and find an apprenticeship opportunity in high school. They need to college, and be able to find an apprenticeship program there, an apprenticeship opportunity there. We have high schools and colleges in every single community in the United States. This is where young people are. This is where everyone goes to get education and skills. Ironically, in the United States our apprenticeship system has developed completely independently and sort of separate from our formal education system. And I would say that is the biggest single barrier on its growth and expansion today. So if we can connect it to our school system, we can make apprenticeship programs available in high school—and make them part of graduating from high school. We can connect them to colleges. That’s what we need to do. And at New America we have a number of recommendations for how to do that. That’s what states like Colorado and Washington are trying to think through.
Mary Alice McCarthy: So number one, we need to make it possible for high school students and college students to find an apprenticeship program easily and combine it with finishing high school or completing college. Number two, the other big piece that we need for scale is that we need employers to be willing to try this out. They need help to do that. They’re not familiar with these programs. They’re not familiar with how to set them up. It cost money to set them up. They might need some help with startup costs, at least. They need technical assistance. That’s a role where government can really help. And then I do think parents and teachers are absolutely critical. We have said change people understanding of what an apprenticeship is and what it can lead to. And that requires sort of really engaging with parents and really engaging with teachers and counselors—high school guidance counselors. And understanding that an apprenticeship doesn’t have to be an alternative to college. It can be another modality of college—just another way to go to college that’s just a little bit different. And really get them on board. And I would say last of all are students. But I will say we’ve done quite a bit of survey research and focus group research and the group that we find the most open new apprenticeship are young people themselves.
Kevin Fudge: On that note, we’ll wrap it up. Thanks for speaking with me today, Mary Alice. It’s been a pleasure.
Mary Alice McCarthy: Thank you Kevin. And likewise.
This podcast episode is sponsored by American Student Assistance®. ASA® is a national nonprofit committed to helping kids know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices to achieve their education and career goals. To learn more about ASA, visit asa.org.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.