Nicholas Wyman's parents pushed him to go to college, but all he wanted to do at the time was learn to cook.
His dad, a college professor, was flummoxed when Wyman took a four-year apprenticeship as a chef. After several years as a chef, he went on to college and earned an MBA.
Today, Wyman is CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation, where he has embraced the unusual mission of talking certain kids out of college. His new book, “Job U: How to Find Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills Companies Actually Need," outlines current programs in the U.S. to create well-paid, high-skilled workers who are employable right out of high school.
DN: What's the biggest challenge you face in talking people out of college?
Wyman: Everyone says, “Yes, apprenticeships are great! But everyone needs to go to college!” There’s a stigma against skilled careers. So there is this idea that even though tuition rates are climbing astronomically, if you don’t have a college degree you are going to be at a distinct disadvantage. People will say, “What you are suggesting is unconventional.” Well, it might be unconventional here, but it ain’t unconventional in Switzerland or Germany.
DN: The Germans have a long track record and deep commitment to apprenticeship, working closely with key industries. You note in your book that Siemens, a German corporation with a strong presence in North Carolina, is using the German model locally. How is that working out?
Wyman: Apprenticeships work for Siemens because they have rock solid support from Eric Spiegel, their CEO. If you don’t have that support from the top down, you’ll see programs like this come and go. He knows the name of every apprentice in that business. Siemens invests in its people. And now that the program has been running for a couple of years, the first generation of apprentices are mentoring the next. That emergence of that peer-to-peer influence has been very interesting to watch. That program is definitely going to produce the next generation of management for that company.
DN: Where have you seen the greatest growth in apprenticeships?
Wyman: The U.K. has seen massive growth in recent years, driven by a need to address high youth unemployment. They’ve decided that they would rather get kids into apprenticeships than having them wandering around on the streets or being on welfare. The government is running some serious advertising campaigns, a multi-million pound campaign, using the slogan, “Get in and go far.” The U.K. apprentice program has jumped from 400,000 to nearly a million in about four years.
DN: You write in your book about a young woman who had planned to major in international relations but decided instead to do a machinist apprenticeship at Siemens and is now on track to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
Wyman: Yes, Rebeca Espinal. She is incredibly sharp. Before I even met her, I was with the human resources there on the floor, and he pointed her out and said, “In seven years, she’ll be running this plant.” I talked to her a couple of a weeks ago, and she is absolutely committed to her plan. Siemens is going to help her get her associates degree, debt free, and then she will start taking classes at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
DN: Would you say she dodged a bullet by not majoring in international relations?
Wyman: How many international relations students end up unemployable or working at Starbucks? I think about 99.9 percent. You see this on the subways in New York. Look at all the ads advertising all the "exciting" college degrees. The subway rider can't tell which of those programs actually lead to jobs. I talked to the owners of a local gym in New York and they said, “Nick, we get 25 applications every day from college graduates in sports science or sports nutrition." It’s a supply and demand mismatch. The programs are happy to keep churning out the graduates because there is money in it for them.
DN: In the book, you describe the Minuteman High School, a vocational high school in Lexington, Massachusetts. Minuteman offers "majors" that lead to real jobs, but it also seems that these "practical" approaches could be pathways to higher education. A kid who takes horticulture and works in a nursery in high school may end up studying plant science in college. Is there anything in a vocational high school emphasis that precludes a kid going on to college?
Wyman: The problem is that people think you have to pick one or the other. I’m saying you can have both. People tend to think of these apprenticeships as like building construction: you get your certificate and you are done. But for astute people, it’s a very good way to get yourself well along the path to an education.
DN: What’s the key to changing American approach to vocational skills?
Wyman: I think a lot of industries have sat back and asked what the government is going to do about the skills challenge. Government’s got a role to play, but ultimately the skills thing is in the hands of the employers. Government changes so often. All of these programs end when the money runs out. Employers need to push past that.