In countries across the Atlantic, apprenticeships are how most young people enter the workforce. Here, many don’t know what they are. Michigan wants to change that.

JACKSON, Mich.—Cory Henion always knew what he wanted to do. Well, not exactly, but he knew he wanted to work with his hands—not just with his fingers typing away at a 9-to-5 office job. 

In summers during middle school and early high school, he tagged along with his grandfather, a retired electrician, wiring houses and getting a feel for handiness. In high school, he doubled down, enrolling in the Jackson Area Career Center’s precision engineering program. Next, he worked at a local machine shop, where he earned school credits while working.

By the time he had graduated high school, Henion had already amassed a bevy of hands-on machinery experience and a sizable amount of savings. Despite pressure by teachers to join the flock of classmates bound for college, Henion knew what he wanted to do.

Upon graduation, he began as a tool and die maker apprentice, joining an inaugural apprenticeship class in Jackson. 

“They told us [in high school], if you didn’t have a four-year degree, you really weren’t going to amount to anything in life,” Henion said. “Wrong, right, or indifferent, that’s what they told us. I don’t believe that’s right.”

Now an instructor for rising apprentices, Henion stayed with the same employer for 16 years following his apprenticeship, eventually marrying his wife and opening a small business on the side. He still lives in Jackson, and now works at the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association, the same place where he took his training.

Henion is proud of his path, and he credits his start as an apprentice for his success. 

As many mid-career people question their degrees or move from job to job, Henion’s choice of tool and die maker has been a rock of stability. For many who have made good lives for their family, the trope of “you need a degree to get a good job nowadays” rings tired and untrue.

“It cost them a lot of money to figure out what they wanted to do or didn’t want to do,” Henion said.

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The Campaign for Apprenticeships

With that backdrop—rising college tuition with no promise of a job on the other end of graduation—Michigan has joined dozens of other states pushing apprenticeships to young people and job seekers.

Apprenticeships are registered career pathways that fuse training and working into a single stint of time. Apprentices work for part of the day and attend class for another part, and they’re on the clock for all of it. Any tuition is paid for in “sweat equity,” meaning it’s just deducted from the pay stub.

When they complete a registered course—provided by local working groups or major employers—apprentices receive national accreditation in their field, allowing them to prove they’re trained as an electrician, machinist, plumber, or scores of other jobs in high demand. That seal travels the country as certification to work.

Over the next few years, Michigan will have at least over 8,000 new apprenticeship opportunities, with additional options announced regularly. The state is using apprenticeships as a tool to help people rebound from the pandemic as well, including veterans, people with disabilities, and people of color.

“This goal is really to make it much more prevalent as opposed to, in some cases, a lot of college debt and still not the right position,” said Scott Jedele, state administrative manager for apprenticeship expansion within the Michigan Department of Labor.

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An Uphill Battle

One reason that many high schoolers don’t consider apprenticeships as legitimate career on-ramps is they’re not aware of them. Or if they are, their first association is to antiquity apprenticeships of the Middle Ages, instead of the very viable, federally certified career preparation that it is today.

The US is behind on apprenticeships and in people’s awareness of them. Other developed countries funnel a majority of young people through apprenticeships instead of college or graduate school. They do so for good reason: Apprenticeships have unmistakable advantages over college degrees and contemporaneous internships. 

First, apprenticeships guarantee no debt. Not just that, these programs also pay, because apprentices are on the job—real jobs that pay well—while training.

Second, every apprentice finishes with a job. While many college graduates leave school with no employment at the end of the tunnel, people who finish apprenticeships simply go from apprentice to employee—working with the same employer as they have been while training. For some, that might be for a few years. For others like Henion, that same position will stretch decades.

Third, apprenticeships come in positions with longevity and transferability. Someone who becomes a welder through one program can travel the country or go from employer to employer using that same Labor Department-stamped certificate. 

Former apprentices appreciate their experience, but they also carry some indignation at the fact that apprenticeships in the US aren’t more reputed and respected.

A skilled worker joins the workforce via apprenticeship only 0.3% of the time nationally, Jedele said.

In Germany, a country highly regarded around the world for workforce development, 55% of high school graduates enter the work world through an apprenticeship program, though how these are administered differs from in the US. Apprenticeships in Germany span 327 vocations, and over 1 million people are apprentices in any given year in a country of 80 million.

Stateside, apprenticeships are growing, and since 2017, about a million people have used apprenticeships to find employment. But overall, young people still have fledgling appreciation for the program compared to other workforce entryways.

Michigan and other states across the country are working to change that. In July, Michigan landed a $10 million federal grant to expand apprenticeship programs in the state. That money will translate into 1,600 new jobs, all accessed through four-year apprenticeships.

“As we put Michigan back to work, Registered Apprenticeship programs offer on-ramps to high-demand, high-skill careers,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said announcing the grant.

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Setting the Record Straight

Apprenticeship advocates have a couple more misconceptions to clear up too.

These jobs aren’t your great-to-the-30th-degree-grandfather’s apprenticeships of old, they say. Manufacturing workspaces are nice, shiny, clean, and safe, maintained up to federal standard and tailored to draw in young employees. 

“It’s not this dark, dirty, dingy s***hole that some people portray it to be,” Henion said. “A lot of these jobs are cleaner than your house.”

And that’s not all.

Michigan apprenticeships place employees in hospitals, computer labs, and virtually any technical-training-required workplace you can imagine.

“That’s one thing that maybe not everybody understands. The apprenticeship model is spreading far into occupations,” Jedele said. “My most favorite recently was a commercial drone operator.”

One of the best parts about apprenticeships for young people is they can stop snoozing through lectures a few years early. Henion said that as an instructor, he’s grown to understand the type of people who take on apprenticeship training. They’re active-minded and hands-on.

He was one of those kids, after all. And he’s stuck with it.

“That speaks volumes that all these years later, I’m here trying to give back to it and still believe in it, and trying to better our future as a community,” Henion said.