The case against college

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Rebecca Blank, UW-Madison’s new chancellor, might want to have my head examined (she’ll have to get in line), but given the debt load accumulated by today’s collegians, perhaps some of her students should consider a blue-collar life.

Outside of manufacturing and construction, many are unaware of Wisconsin’s longstanding apprenticeship program. State government has relied on intermittent federal money to fund it, but lawmakers recently decided to replace that with $1.8 million in permanent state general-purpose revenue. That allocation, combined with the federal government’s wise decision to allow more flexibility in how states run their programs, has resulted in more of an employer-based focus. Some programs train people for jobs that may not exist, but nobody becomes an apprentice unless there is an actual job opening that requires training.

Perhaps the best part is that apprentices earn while they learn. According to Reggie Newson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin apprentices earn an average of $161,000 during their training period. That beats having $100,000 or more in student loan debt, with limited job prospects in a slow-growth economy. “The employer is paying for the training, equipment, and resources the apprentice needs, and they earn a family-supporting wage,” Newson says.

Wisconsin employers are familiar with the term “skills gap,” which impacts those who have job openings but can’t find the right skill sets to fill them. The state has developed a variety of new workforce strategies to build the skills base of its population, but apprenticeship is its longest-running technical training program — 100 years long. 

The program’s long-term benefits are illustrated by Alex Urbanchek, the owner of Urban Manufacturing in Pewaukee. In the 1950s, Urbanchek served as a machinist apprentice in his native Hungary. When he moved to the United States, he began working as a machine operator, and he eventually opened his own machine shop in the 1970s. Urbanchek hired his first apprentice in 1982, and he has been hiring them ever since.



Among its 70 plant-floor employees, Urban Manufacturing has 19 apprentices-turned-journeymen machinists, and while about 10 former apprentices have left for other jobs, some have become company managers and supervisors. For Urbanchek, each apprentice represents a $13,000 investment, including technical college coursework, over a two-year period, but it’s worthwhile because Urban Manufacturing hasn’t been struggling to fill job openings.

“I’m paying for them to be good machinists,” Urbanchek noted, “even if I lose them.” 

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