Talent   //   August 29, 2022  ■  8 min read

Young people consider apprenticeships over college

President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, announced last week, will no doubt have prompted celebrations for 43 million student loan borrowers. But it didn’t address the financial dilemma future students face: With costs continuing to escalate, is a college degree still worth it?

Over the years the number of graduates has swelled. The knock-on effect is that college degrees don’t always set job applicants apart as they used to. Apprenticeship programs are gaining traction as part of a national rethink to get workers prepared for the workforce, with programs expanding from so-called blue-collar trade jobs to include corporate and tech jobs.

“Interest in apprenticeships has been steadily growing over the past 10 years, alongside similar growth in the number of apprenticeships and apprenticeship expansion grants,” said Annelies Goger, whose research at the Brookings Institution focuses on the future of work.

Nearly 52 million American workers — 32% of the country’s workforce — earn less than $15 an hour, according to Oxfam America. Bodies offering alternatives to higher education — like apprenticeships — are pushing for two things: to make costs more manageable and to ensure job outcomes are more certain. According to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition, fees and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169%. Bachelor’s degree students face costs between $10,750 and $38,070 per year (depending on the college) for tuition alone, according to CollegeData. And graduating with a bachelor’s degree doesn’t guarantee a job.

“These workers, despite their talent and promise, have few options to advance,” said Connor Diemand-Yauman, co-CEO of nonprofit Merit America. “When they look at college, they see programs that are often too long, too expensive, too inflexible.”

“The increased emphasis and dialogue around student loan forgiveness and the student debt crisis has encouraged people to question the [return on investment] of college more and more,” he added. The more that folks talk about the need for loan forgiveness and the ballooning debt crisis, the more people will question whether or not the path is actually right for them, said Diemand-Yauman. “The way to save a sinking ship is not to put more tape on the holes, we need to reevaluate higher education as a whole and think about ways we can make it more efficient, more efficacious and lead to the outcomes that students actually care about.”

One alternative to college, Merit America, provides virtual training and placement opportunities for individuals in the tech industry. Half of its students tried college and decided it didn’t work for them, and the other half chose the alternative route from the start. After going through their programs, most Merit America graduates see a $19,000 increase in salary upon completion. The nonprofit offers flexible tech training programs and employer partnerships, and is on track to generate $1 billion in wage gains by 2024. 

Aside from growing student debt, the workforce is changing. Currently, that looks like a tumultuous job market, with inflation and layoffs and a looming recession. Yet, job seekers are looking to do better for themselves and their families, which is leading them to question which path will get them where they actually want to go.

At Merit America, repayment schemes differ from college degrees in that those who enroll pay nothing upfront. Once they secure a job, graduates set monthly payments for 24 to 60 months. Payment is capped and has no interest (unlike student loan repayments). While Merit America is focused on tech, the company’s co-CEOs are finding that more industries are welcoming apprenticeship programs.

“People are realizing that the pathways that have been suggested to them as the best way to get the end goal might not actually be the case,” said co-CEO Rebecca Taber Steahelin. “There’s increasing scrutiny of taking out tens of thousands of dollars in debt and spending years of our lives in a rigid institution.”

Merit America graduates include students like Rosa Gomez, a young adult who moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in pursuit of work opportunities after high school but couldn’t afford traditional college. She enrolled in the information technology support program and now works for financial services company Wells Fargo as an IT operations associate.

Elsewhere, Naven Carter dropped out of college due to financial barriers and the pandemic, and enrolled in the same IT course as Gomez. She now works for cellular network T-Mobile as a mobile technician. Halid Hamade, who studied economics at Penn State University, was not able to graduate after private lenders wouldn’t allow him to take out additional loans in his final semester. With $100,000 in debt and no degree, he searched for alternative education options, enrolled in Merit America’s IT support professional certificate program and landed a job as an integration engineer at a health care IT company.

Some argue that not having a four-year degree might take someone out of the running for a job. However, employers are increasingly realizing that when you filter candidates by college degrees, you potentially close out good candidates, specifically Black and Latinx talent, said Taber Steahelin. Over 1,800 students have completed certificate programs with Merit America, and over 70% of Merit America students identify as BIPOC.

“We have tens of millions of folks who are stuck in low-wage work who laugh when you tell them that the best way out of their situation is to go to college,” said Diemand-Yauman. “That’s what they’ve been told for years…that that is the golden ticket. This disparity and lack of access to opportunity compounds across generations and we need more pathways to meet the needs of working adults.”

Lawyers are historically known for contributing to the “hustle culture” in both law firms and legal departments, where employees work upwards of 80 hours a week to hit hourly billing targets. This led to increased burnout in the legal industry, which the pandemic exacerbated with the switch to remote work where lawyers were on call 24-7. The recent trend of “quiet quitting” is empowering lawyers to reestablish the lines between work and personal life and set new expectations around their role so their mental well-being is prioritized but their work is still completed. 

The name is misleading and perhaps makes it sound like more negative behavior than it really is. Do you think this pushback on hustle culture is negative for employers, or are there silver linings?

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “quiet quitting” but “acting your wage” isn’t much better. This pushback on hustle culture has benefits, not only for the employee but also for employers and businesses. From the employee perspective, legal professionals will see burnout decrease and will have more time to focus on their human needs, whether those be personal or professional. For general counsels, chief legal officers and other business and legal leaders, reestablishing work-life balance will lead to more engaged employees, who are happier, more effective, well-rounded and more present at work.

What does the popularity of this term signal to you about how employers need to engage with their staff that feel this way, or with staff in general? 

These conversations around hustling versus doing solely what’s in an employee’s job description will look different for each employee. Some employees will still want to go above and beyond while others might be content doing exactly what’s listed in the job description. Either way, employers should invest in tools that will make employees’ day-to-day lives easier by automating mundane tasks while allowing them to focus on more strategic business initiatives or projects that they are passionate about. This will only increase employee engagement and productivity while also retaining top talent in this tight labor market. — Jessica Davies.

By the numbers

  • 2 in 5 U.S. business travelers (2,200 were polled) who traveled at least three times a year pre-pandemic expect to never travel for business again.
    [Source of data: MorningConsult.]
  • 71% of 2,200 U.K. professionals polled are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress about the cost-of-living crisis, which is affecting their productivity at work.
    [Source of data: Champion Health report.]

Quote of the week

What else we’ve covered

  • Going beyond the hype: Quiet quitters might just be another way to talk about disengaged employees. Experts say managers should check in more.
  • Employers are increasingly opening up the chance for their staff to relocate and work from overseas. But there are some hidden hurdles employers need to understand before they do so.
  • Apple and AT&T are among those to get major employee backlash to return-to-office mandates. We look at why.
  • With millions of followers, a new class of corporate creators is skewering our current state of work — and dominating social media.
  • HR compliance company Mineral is urging employers to be proactive about being on alert for hiring scams after falling victim itself.
  • Becoming a digital nomad — traveling the world, laptop in tow, seeking the next adventure by night while working from beach bars by day — sounds highly appealing in this new world of remote work. But what if you have children?
  • Holacracy, quiet quitting, WFA, 100:80:100: These are among the latest workplace buzzwords. Check out what they mean, along with all new terms that have arrived to describe future-of-work trends in WorkLife’s glossary.

What we’re reading

  • The job market is still in the seekers’ favor — all those recently laid off have found jobs swiftly and, at times, better paid. [WSJ]
  • Energy bills are on track to more than double this winter in the U.K., but they could offset their bills by working in the office. [Bloomberg]