What paths can high school students take in accumulating hard and soft skills so that they can make the transition to a career and job? The main answer in US society is “go to college.” But for a large share of high school graduates, being told that they now need to attend several more years of classes is not what they want to hear.

Historically, a common alternative career path was that companies hired young workers who had little to offer other than energy and flexibility, and then trained and promoted those workers. Unions often played a role in advocating and supporting this training, too. But in the last few decades, it seems that a lot of companies have exited the job training business. Their general sense is that young adults aren’t likely to stay with the company, so in effect, you are training them for their next employer. Instead, better just to require that new hires already have experience.

The earn-and-learn career path tries to steer between these extremes. Yes, it involves additional learning, because that’s what 21st century jobs are like, but it seeks to have that learning take place more in the workplace than in the classroom. Also, instead of paying to learn, you get paid while learning. On the other side, firms that participate in this kind of training don’t need to take on the entire responsibility and cost of doing so.

Annelies Goger sketches this framework in “Desegregating work and learning through ‘earn-and-learn’ models” (Brookings Institution, December 9, 2020). She points out the gigantic difference in public support for higher education vs. public support for an earn-and-learn approach.

The earn-and-learn programs under the public workforce system—authorized under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)—are underused and hard to scale. Publicly funded job training options are tiny overall compared to investments in traditional public higher education or classroom-based job training. Funding for public higher education was $385 billion in 2017-18, compared to about $14 billion for employment services and training across 43 programs. The net result is that higher education is the main provider of publicly funded training for most Americans, and most of the $14 billion for employment services and training goes to services (most of which isn’t training) for special populations such as veterans and people with disabilities.

This difference in public support is even more stark when you recognize that those with a college education are likely to end up with  higher average incomes during their lives, so that we are doing more to subsidize the training of the relatively high earners of the future than we are to subsidize the training of the middle- and lower-level earners.

What do the earn-and-learn programs look like in practice? Here’s a graphic:


I won’t try to go through these choices one at a time: for present purposes, the salient fact is that they are all small in size. As long-time readers know, I’m a fan of a dramatic expansion of apprenticeships (for example, here, here, here, and here). But as Goger writes:

For example, the U.S. had roughly 238,000 new registered apprentices in 2018. However, if the U.S. had the same share of new apprentices per capita as Germany, we would have 2 million new apprentices per year; if we had the same share as the United Kingdom or Switzerland, that number would be 3 million.