Jeremiah Davies

Jason is your average 17-year-old high school senior who lives in South Salt Lake. Now’s the time to plan for what he should do after graduation. All his friends are going to universities, and he’s thought about it too, but ultimately, it just doesn’t feel right for him. He’s interested in other careers, but he feels pressured to go to a university like his friends.

We’ve been led to believe the American Dream demands we attend a four-year university. This trend has had profound results on our educational and career choice and has ultimately reshaped the U.S. economy. While four-year universities provide significant value for some career paths, they are not the only option.

To keep up with changes in the U.S. workforce, we need to give people more options that are better designed for a 21st-century economy, placing an increasing value on skillset rather than just degrees.

One solution is to increase exposure and support for apprenticeships in business and technical vocations.

The good news is there are two bills in the Utah Legislature that would promote the opportunities apprenticeships offer. Senator Jacob Anderegg’s Utah Apprenticeship Act would establish a pilot program for high school students to participate in business-focused apprenticeships under the direction of the Talent Ready Utah Board. Representative Mike Winder’s Apprenticeship Opportunity Awareness bill would create a Commissioner of Apprenticeship Programs to promote trade apprenticeships through education and coordination efforts.

Still, Utah has a lot of room to grow in making apprenticeships a real option for our students.

Apprenticeships provide a unique and valuable blend of learning a skill, gaining professional experience, and earning an income. While the average student who graduated from a four-year program in 2017 left with nearly $29,000 in student debt, most apprenticeships leave people with little or no student debt, since employers are paying students to learn a skill. Many apprentices go on to start their own businesses, strengthening the economy and their communities.

What many don’t realize is that apprenticeships are a practical path into a wide variety of careers outside of vocational jobs like electricians and plumbers. There are apprenticeships for fields like nursing, culinary arts, energy, manufacturing and technology. They also can serve a broader, more diverse population than universities. By offering practical and affordable opportunities to low-income adults and those living in rural Utah, whose valuable work skills may be currently underdeveloped, apprenticeships offer unique options to increase economic mobility and decrease income inequality.

Data also suggest that apprenticeships are a good investment for businesses and the economy. The Center for American Progress reports that employers earn $1.47 for every dollar they invest in apprenticeships, and this money goes back into local communities. Not only are they investing in the workers, but they are investing in their economy and the workforce as a whole.

As we look around our world, we see lights over our heads, running water in our sinks, skilled care in our hospitals and expertly prepared food in our restaurants. A university education, while valuable, is one of the more expensive ways to train people to provide these important components of our quality of life. If we truly want to invest in our education, economy and workforce, we must invest in more affordable and accessible options for students. After all, apprenticeships and alternative educational opportunities are part of the American Dream too.

Jeremiah Davies is a policy intern for Sutherland Institute.