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How apprenticeships can empower fathers and strengthen marriages

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a four-part series, written in partnership with TheAtlantic.com, examining the role of fathers in American families. You can also read part one, part two or part three of the series.

Young men are more likely to drop out of high school and are less likely to aspire to college than their female peers. Young men who are poor, live in a city and are black or Latino are at even higher risk of unemployment and unplanned teen fatherhood than their peers in other demographics. As men’s earnings have stagnated, marriage has declined. It’s a vicious cycle: Being unmarried weakens men’s commitment to the workforce, but stagnation in earnings is contributing to the decline in marriage.

Robert Lerman — an economist at American University and fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research center in Washington, D.C. — has a solution. He believes bringing apprentice-based learning to America’s schools would both raise earnings and give young men the skills they need to be good husbands and fathers. Put boys in a real-world situation outside the classroom with skilled adults as mentors, Lerman says, and students have a chance to engage in on-the-job training in a wide range of fields from baking to boat-building, farming to architecture, public health to civil engineering.

This is learning in context, and it’s what young men (and women) crave: It feels immediate and real. It is not isolated or abstract; it is refreshingly relevant, and it is taking place in real time, in real space, and among adults who take young people seriously. Youth apprenticeship has an immediacy that engages students who have trouble paying attention in class by giving them the time and the means to develop genuine mastery in a given field. At the same time, they are cultivating skills — such as how to communicate effectively, problem-solve, work in teams and maintain a positive attitude — that help them become reliable partners to their future spouses and present, stable fathers to their future children.

“If we teach everything entirely in a classroom context, we’re not going to be as effective — even when it comes to academics,” Lerman says. “The reality is that people learn best — whether it’s cognitive or technical skills or even how to get along with others — in context.”

Skill-based learning has fallen out of favor in the past few decades. Once popular, career-oriented courses have been phased out since the 1980s in favor of academic courses aimed at preparing students for the knowledge economy. For instance, shop classes — once a mainstay in most American high schools — are being eliminated in California schools in favor of courses that prepare students for university. A good education is increasingly defined as a college education: think President Obama’s national goals for college to be affordable, accessible and attainable for all, and for America to have the “highest number of college graduates in the world” by 2020.

Though well intentioned, the shift away from skill-based learning has not served all students well, especially those most at risk of dropping out of high school: poor, urban, minority boys who have a history of not thriving in school and consequently self-identify as poor learners. Although our high-school graduation rate used to rank number one among OECD nations, it’s now among the lowest.

The idea of college for all, Lerman says, is the reason it’s uncommon today for schools to offer specific career-oriented courses comprehensive enough to allow students to attain full competence. And a college-preparation-focused curriculum that doesn’t incorporate innovative learning strategies is misguided, leading disaffected youths to become bored with seemingly irrelevant coursework in high school. In one survey by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, almost half of high school dropouts surveyed say they left school because their classes felt boring and irrelevant.

Research on adolescent development shows that an apprenticeship model, which typically consists of a working partnership between a local business or civic organization and a school, meets many developmental needs of adolescents. During this stage of life, young people crave feelings of usefulness, responsibility and respect, and they long to be part of the adult world.

Many young people best attain these feelings when immersed in that adult world, working with older mentors who respect and regard them as human beings who are capable of learning and progressing. They thrive when they are expected to carry their own weight and doing work that feels immediate and genuine. They become more mature and responsible through the actual work they do in their apprenticeship, learning to communicate effectively with co-workers, bosses and clients.

Robert Halpern, a professor of education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, whose research focuses on after-school programs for poor children and their families, argues that the best schooling for adolescent developmental needs goes beyond the classroom.

During a 30-month investigation of one after-school apprenticeship program, After School Matters in Chicago, Halpern found that participating youths who attend the program a mere three afternoons a week for one school year became more flexible thinkers and undertook tasks with more care. They learned to persevere and understand the value of working through problems. They became more self-responsible and more patient. Their public behavior changed; they became “more mature, more appropriately assertive,” Halpern says in his book, "The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence." These are all skills that serve young people well when they enter the workforce and when they start families of their own.

These apprenticeships, according to Halpern, gave youths “a sense of different ways of being an adult, what it means to be passionate about a discipline and what it takes to become good at thinking.”

Not only were students learning actively rather than passively for the first time in their lives, the experience enabled many of them to begin to overcome years of thinking of themselves as subpar learners. In so doing, their experiences opened up a future that would otherwise have remained closed and influenced them at a critical time in their lives. These “very specific learning and work experiences leave a deep imprint on still malleable selves.”

In some places in the United States, career-based learning is gaining traction and helping to blur the old, rigid lines between academic and vocational learning with encouraging success. Georgia has mandated that all ninth-graders take a career or academic-focused pathway in order to graduate from high school; as a result, one school in Dalton, Ga., increased its high school graduation rates from 56 to 92 percent. The increased vocational education did not lead to weaker academic prospects for students: Nearly 70 percent of the school’s students enrolled in college within two years of graduating from high school.

In Wisconsin, youth apprenticeships are part of a statewide School-to-Work initiative. Diane Kraus, the Dane County youth apprenticeship coordinator, told me about her program. Students at Dane County schools are invited to comprehensive information sessions during their sophomore year, at which they can learn about a range of apprenticeships in fields such as biotech, health or information technology.

The Dane County program sees applicants with backgrounds all over the map. “There’s no minimum GPA to come into the program,” Kraus says. It doesn’t matter whether a student’s GPA is near-failing or over 4.0. What does matter, she says, is that “they are interested in participating, make a commitment to work, and will be a good employee.”

Once students decide upon a program and the business agrees to take them on, they, along with their families and the school, sign a training agreement with the business and begin during their junior or senior year. Most students work 12 to 15 hours a week, and for the majority of students the apprenticeship is integrated into the school day. They get high school or even college credit for the work. The school remains very involved. “We’re monitoring their academics, making sure they stay on track for high school graduation,” Kraus says.

She sees how the apprenticeships provide students, who often enter the program with only vague ideas of what they want to do after they graduate, with real-life skills in all areas. They become better organized, better at communicating and more aware of what it takes to succeed as an adult.

“These students are managing their own schedule, they’re juggling their job, school, and any extracurricular activities. By the time they graduate from high school, they have a better idea what they want to do. They’ve been out there already, talking to mentors and learning about different jobs. Yes, they’re juggling quite a bit, but for a lot of them it will be that huge difference: all of a sudden, things connect for them,” she says.

And these connections have a lasting impact. Of the first group of youths who went through the program in 2000, three of them who had apprenticed at various IT firms (including Kraus’s own son) are currently working for Apple, Microsoft and Google.

My family and I lived in Japan for five years, and my sons attended Japanese public school. There, technology and home economics are an integral part of the core curriculum and are taught for years to students alongside academic courses, just as they are in countries such as South Korea and Finland. My sons loved learning how to boil eggs, sew a button or wield a saw: practical skills they saw as immediately useful and satisfying.

I, in turn, liked how these experiences helped them feel positively about school. Lerman has found that in nations such as Germany and Switzerland (and, increasingly, the U.K.), youth apprenticeship programs are a crucial way of keeping youths feeling engaged and providing them with real skills that can later be matched to real jobs. A review of dropout rates in OECD countries concludes that it is important to provide “a variety of options for students, including ones that provide significant experiences in workplace settings.”

The most intriguing potential benefit of expanding youth apprenticeship programs in the U.S., though, has nothing to do with academic or career success. Rather, these programs can help young men develop relational skills they need. They provide intensive training in maturity, communication skills, working in teams, having a good attitude and the ability to persevere — all crucial for getting and retaining good jobs and, according to Lerman, for being good partners and fathers and having better relationships.

“Learning to communicate well with customers, supervisors and co-workers even in tense situations will certainly help a young person learn critical couple-related skills,” Lerman says. “Ideally, this approach of building skills and problem-solving on the job will have a positive influence on couple skills too.”

Christine Gross-Loh is the author of "Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us" (Avery, 2013).