Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue

The Case for More Occupational Training

Ironworker apprentices practice their welding skills. (Jason Cohn/Reuters)
And fewer degrees

On June 12, Brandon Webber shot a man five times at point-blank range and stole his car. When U.S. Marshals attempted to arrest him in Memphis, Webber rammed their car and was fatally shot after he fled. This outcome seems to be the downside of the disconnectedness, from school and from paid employment, that he experienced. By all accounts he was a responsible, positive individual while in high school. Typical of those who knew him then was his tenth-grade history teacher, Mary McIntosh, who continued to work with him until he graduated. “He was an excellent student,” she recalled. “For me, he was the kind of student a teacher could count on to be disciplined and focused.” A number of his classmates echoed this positive view of Webber.

The problem was that in the two years after his high-school graduation, Webber’s life seemed to change. After a brief enrollment at the University of Memphis, he did not gain paid employment. Instead, he began to accumulate a police record for a variety of offenses. Without gaining stable paid employment, too many disconnected youth like Webber will gravitate to the street life, where nothing good can happen. 

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented employment expansion among young black men. Most striking, the employment rate of those between the ages of 20 and 24 years increased from 46.9 percent in 2010 to 60.1 percent in 2017, halving the racial employment gap for that age group. However, despite these robust gains, 20.1 percent of young black men 16 to 24 years old were disconnected, compared with 12.6 and 10.1 percent of Latino and white young men, respectively.

A 2018 study found that these youths are often disconnected from family as well. Disconnected young people are about two and a half times more likely than their connected peers to be living with family other than their parents, about twice as likely to be living with a roommate, and about eight times more likely to be living alone. Even more disturbing, an alarmingly high proportion of disconnected black males ages 16 to 24 — nearly a fifth — are incarcerated, compared with just 0.3 percent of that age cohort overall. 

A study I just completed verifies this finding. I developed a model to explain the variation in state-level violent-crime rates, using data from 2010 through 2016. Variables included the black share of all men not in prison, the poverty rate, the male-employment rate, the high-school-graduation rates, and the share of men between 16 and 24 who are disconnected. Results differed, depending on which variables were included. The statistical significance of the disconnected-youth variable was strong. Once it had been added, neither the poverty nor the employment nor the high-school-completion variable was significant. In particular, for every 10 percent increase in the disconnection rate, my model found a 6.59 percent increase in the state’s violent-crime rate. The statistical significance of the share of men who are black is also strong, indicating that, even after taking into account employment, education, poverty, and disconnectedness, states with a greater share of young black males have higher violent-crime rates.

The disconnectedness of so many young black men is related to the promotion of a four-year-college-for-all educational strategy regardless of a student’s educational skills. Nationwide, in 2017 only 13 percent of black eighth-graders were proficient in mathematics, while more than half did not achieve the basic skill level. In the past, many youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and with weak academic skills found their way into the world of work as teens, in jobs that taught them the necessary “soft skills” of time management and effective interaction with managers and fellow workers. 

Unfortunately, teen employment has collapsed, and liberals have no effective strategy to increase the private-sector employment of these at-risk youth. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the proposed increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour would cost 1.3 million jobs and possibly as many as 3.7 million, weakening the employment prospects of many black men with no more than a high-school degree. Maintaining current levels of low-skilled immigration, which many liberals favor, can only make that problem worse. Rather than promoting direct employment, liberals have emphasized enrollment in academic programs at community colleges, where the dropout rate is high.

For example, in New York City, fewer than one-quarter of community-college entrants gain a two-year degree within three years. Among 25- to 29-year-olds, 46 percent of black men had no more than a high-school diploma, while another 27 percent were college dropouts. Only 7 percent had an associate’s degree, and 20 percent had a bachelor’s. Like Brandon Webber, many weakly prepared black students drop out of college and end up disconnected.

Kenneth Adams, a dean at Bronx Community College, sees a better way. He recommends that, working with industry associations, the City University of New York design new credit-bearing certificate programs that are linked to associate’s degrees. New offerings build short-term credentials, including licensing requirements, into degree-track programs. This would enable many young black men to gain a marketable skill on which to build even if they never completed the associate’s degree.

Liberals fear that black and Latino students will be directed into low-wage occupations that doom them to long-term poverty. What they ignore is the life progression of those who sustain full-time employment. A Princeton study found that, among full-time, year-round workers with the same level of education, inflation-adjusted wages increased by 75 percent as they aged from their mid 20s to their mid 40s. Census data indicate that in 2016, full-time, year-round nonsupervisory workers who were 50 years old had an average wage 50 percent higher than that of comparable 30-year-old workers.

While certificate programs may lead to jobs that have low starting wages, many apprenticeship programs do not. President Trump has authorized a doubling of federal funding for the latter. Studies indicate that the long-term-earnings benefit they provide exceeds that of completing a degree at a community college. Reports from the state of Washington indicate that the earnings gain from apprenticeship programs far surpasses the gain from technical-training programs at either community colleges or private career schools. A study of apprenticeships in ten U.S. states also documents that they conferred a large earnings gain.

Some educators voice concern that, because of their specificity to one industry or occupation, apprenticeship programs are worse than general education at enabling students to adapt to technological change. Yet data from the 2016 National Household Education Survey found that, whether or not they remained in the same occupation, former apprentices were very likely to apply to their current job the skills they learned during their apprenticeship. Among workers ages 40 and over, 67 percent of those who had completed apprenticeships of one year or more reported using the skills they had learned in the program all or most of the time; another 24 percent reported doing so some of the time.

There seems to be a clear public-policy choice concerning students who leave high school with limited academic skills: continue encouraging them to focus on four-year degrees, or increase their enrollment in certificate and apprenticeship programs. The former too often leaves them without marketable skills and puts them at risk of becoming disconnected. The latter in many cases offers a more viable pathway to attaining steady employment and entering the mainstream.

This article appears as “Jobs or College?” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Robert Cherry — Mr. Cherry is a professor of economics at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.

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