The Huntington-Ingalls Model of Higher Ed

The Apprentice School in Newport News. Not shabby.

by James A. Bacon

The Apprentice School in Newport News is arguably the most under-rated institution of post-secondary education in Virginia. It lacks some of the attributes that many colleges and universities take for granted — no NCAA-affiliated basketball teams, no frat parties and no dormitory high jinks. But consider this: If you’re lucky enough to attend — with a ratio of 230 spots for 4,000 applicants yearly, the school is more selective than Harvard — you get a free ride, graduate debt-free and are guaranteed employment with a major area company at a starting salary of $54,000 a year. That’s $10,000 more than the average college graduate earns.

The hitch? You don’t earn a Bachelor’s degree. Instead, you master one of 17 skilled trades — pipefitting, welding, electrical work — and you get on-the-job experience at Newport News Shipbuilding helping build atomic-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.

As American industries grapple with a shortage of workers in the skilled trades, sure to grow worse as skilled, blue-collar Baby Boomers retire, and as American students grow increasingly skeptical of the value of over-priced college degrees that no longer offer any surety of employment, institutions like the Apprentice School are looking better and better. As noted in a recent New York Times article profiling the school, political enthusiasm for apprenticeships transcends partisan and ideological lines. Writes the Times:

“We know this works,” said Thomas E. Perez, [the U.S. Secretary of Labor], describing how big companies have long trained young people in Germany, which has 40 apprentices for 1,000 workers, compared to about three per 1,000 in the United States. “It’s not hard to figure out why the Germans have a youth unemployment rate that is half what it is here.”

It’s hard to find anyone who objects to apprenticeships. The problem is that they can’t seem to get traction in the United States. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of active apprentices in the United States fell from about 451,000 to 2888,000, according to Labor Department data. That number increased for the first time since the recession, the Times reports, rising by 27,000.

One problem is that apprenticeships can be expensive to support. At the Apprentice School, the U.S. gold standard, they’re really expensive. The training costs $270,000 per apprentice. That’s beyond the reach of most companies. Another difficulty may be a cultural bias in the U.S. against “blue collar” occupations, which are seen as less prestigious, even though earnings are competitive with many professions requiring a college degree.

The Apprentice School addresses the prestige problem by collaborating with Thomas Nelson Community College and Old Dominion University to provide pathways for students to earn Associates and Bachelor’s degrees. That may help explain why a school that most of us have never heard of is so incredibly popular.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia is blessed to have what is arguably the top apprenticeship program in the United States. The school business model may not be readily replicated — not many enterprises have the scale of Newport News Shipbuilding. But the shipbuilding company and its corporate parent, Huntington Ingalls Industries, are public-spirited companies and, I’m confident, would be willing to advise others on what it takes to build a world-class program.

As a matter of public policy, Virginia gives enormous attention to its system of higher education, including a fine system of community colleges. But apprenticeships, as measured by budgetary commitment, fall between the cracks. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry does support the Virginia Registered Apprenticeship system providing a search of apprenticeship opportunities with 2,000 participating Virginia employer-sponsors. That program supports two “apprenticeship consultants” in the Richmond office. And the state does provide a Virginia’s Worker Retraining Tax Credit. But that seems to be the sum total.

If the state is willing to support college students majoring in English, sociology and history (my degree, and look where it landed me!) to the tune of thousands of dollars per student per year, surely it should be willing to support apprenticeship programs as well.

(Hat tip: Reed Fawell.)

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  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “We know this works,” said Thomas E. Perez, [the U.S. Secretary of Labor], describing how big companies have long trained young people in Germany, which has 40 apprentices for 1,000 workers, compared to about three per 1,000 in the United States. “It’s not hard to figure out why the Germans have a youth unemployment rate that is half what it is here.”

    This quote tells it all. Apprenticeships are the oldest and, most likely, the most successful form of teaching and learning a trade in most all societies. So old in fact that it is primal, built into the genes of maturing humans, and it is a system that not only enables people to gain the skills and confidence they need to be able to earn a good and self sustaining living, but it also opens up a world of new opportunities, for the apprentice and mentor alike.

  2. The Shipyard has had that apprentice program for decades and perhaps going back to Colis P. Huntington who founded the Newport News SBDC more than a hundred years ago. There is a statue of Collis Huntington on the grounds…He was determined to build great ships at a profit if he could but always build great ships. Colis was the founder of the C & O Railroad and he developed Hampton, Virginia. The layout for Hampton the city is unique even today.
    Across the country advanced manufacturing institutions are growing and a lot of the focus is on technical training like the apprentice program at the Shipyards in NN. Many of our four year college programs have been watered down and have little intellectual or economic value. It is not uncommon today for a student to get a BA degree and take “History of Science” instead of biology or chemistry or geology. And a course in logic is a substitute for math such as algebra etc.
    So we could learn a lot from that famous man Collis P. Huntington. I was lucky to work at his shipyard some 50+ years ago.

  3. […] today he posted a great piece entitled, The Huntington-Ingalls Model of Higher Ed, in which he lauds the NN Shipyard’s Apprentice […]

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is where we need to be headed in my view. Every child should be explicitly targeted to be set up and trained for a job in the workforce.

    and especially the case in poor neighborhood schools and urban cores. The goal is not to “finish” high school. The goal is to transition to a job – not unemployment on the street, entitlements and prison.

    The kids who don’t want to go that direction and instead go for a 4-year college – fine – let them open that door – but don’t make high school a choice between college and unemployment and entitlements.

    we’ve made this thing a “it’s your fault or your parents fault” that you fail… idea – when it should be a ” of course you are going to get a job – we expect you to – and we’re going to train you to do it”. you don’t have to be a whiz in Calculus or Physics to know how to earn a living as a cop or nurse or HVAC tech or medical technologist…or even a software programmer..or a soldier for that matter.. but you do have to have training and you do have to know what is required from an employee for ANY job…

    when kids grow up and fail to get a job – it’s not only on them – it’s on US.

    we pay… we pay $2000 a month to put a kid dumb enough to sell street drugs in a cell next to a violent felon.. what kind of since does any of that make – for dollars or commons sense?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I agree with the idea of expanding vocational education. But it’s more making information available to kids and getting beyond the great egos of the parents. As Larry knows, Fairfax County Public Schools have a strong vocational education program that many students take advantage of.

      My grandfather always advised his grandchildren to take up a trade (he was a stationary engineer like his father before him). None of us listened, but it was still good advice. I have a nephew who, frustrated with both college and crappy jobs, became an apprentice butcher. He is still in his 20s, but is head butcher at a big grocery store. He’s happy and makes decent money.

  5. John B Avatar

    They are not the only important one in Tidewater. The following is from Stihl’s web site:

    STIHL has a long tradition of placing high priority on training. In order to facilitate entry into a successful career for as many young people as possible, we offer technical and commercial apprenticeships and also help to train our next-generation academics in collaboration with the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University. The goal is to provide optimal preparation for working in occupations requiring various qualifications and for a successful career at STIHL. Through various possibilities for further training, the company also gives all its employees the opportunity to continue developing their capabilities and strengths.

    My grandson used it an graduated up cum laude from ODU.

    1. Of course, Stihl is a German company.

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I suspect that today we have a substantial father shortage.

    By “father shortage” I mean that likely far too many boys growing up today lack a strong father figure(S) to be their guide, set their standards, and teach them how to conduct themselves so as to achieve those standards in action. Another words teach them how to be “How to be a man.” One who is led to grow up to be competent, independent and effective, so that he has the internal means within himself to be and do whatever it is he is made to be and to realize his potential and dreams, and then spread his success to other people, the family he builds, the friends he makes, the community he improves by his actions within it. That includes his right to be gay, or whatever else is right for him.

    Our society today often fails to appreciate this need and fails to understand how and why it needs to build men who can succeed in our rapidly changing society. Indeed, today’s PC society too often shuns even mocks the very idea. This is ignorant, narrow minded, and harmful in the extreme.

    So not only do we now have too often in too many places too few functional and competent fathers, we also have too few functional and competent father figures. It takes a village of father figures to best and most reliably build boys into men. Not girls, not gender neutral people, but men. Men who are fathers and father figures who are willing and able and competent to take up the task. Men who know how to teach younger men, boys, and children, how to grow up strong into the “man” that he is called to be.

    Hence today we have today far too many “lost boys who never grow up.”

    Of course, the military have long known the workings of these dynamics so as to mold boys into men before battle. And a military that fails in its job of building and executing such apprenticeship programs to build solders are at great, and typically fatal, disadvantage in combat.

    In WWII, the US military had mixed success initially in the task, depending on the unit, the time, and the place. Far too often it took the US military far too long to learn the critical dynamic of building its units into effective combat units. For example how to build strong, effective, cohesive infantry squads, small groups of young kids not long out of high school led by an older man, the experienced Non-commissioned Officer (typically a Sergeant) who led the squad, and held it together, confronting adversity.

    It was no coincident that a large number of these Sergeants were called ‘Pappy” by the boys (becoming men) they lead. It is significant too that those NCOs who were effective at their jobs were never forgotten after the war by the men they lead, those kids who had learned so much from them.

    The success of a combat company, battalion and division often depended mostly on the quantity and character of its Non-commissioned Officers. These Corporals & Sergeants were the backbone of many fine combat units. And their quantities, beyond their age and experience, were their strong character and capacity for independence competence demonstrated in actions that set examples for those they lead, and their ability to teach their kids becoming men how to do their highly demanding job with similar competence before the battle and during battle.

    The good NCO in WWII were shining examples of great world changing Master Apprentice programs in action. And it goes on in the military today every day, and when it fails, so will the US Military.

    Civilian life in America is different from military life here. But surely America needs boys and girls to grow up to be competent and independent, to be highly confident and effective, so that he and she has the internal means within themselves to be and do whatever it is they are made to be. Only then will they have the change they deserve to realize their full potential and dreams, and so gain the opportunity to spread their success around to others like family, friends, and the community.

    Based on their past record, Master Apprentice programs can be a key player in making this happen where so often our current College / University system seems to be failing so many.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    In a perfect world – all kids would have well-educated, fullly-employed, economically-secure Moms and Dads who live in neighborhoods with the best schools.

    In the real world – GrandPop did not get a good education because either the schools were segregated or even closed during Massive Resistance.

    Son and Daughter did not go to a good school and Mom/Dad were unable to help their kids educationally.

    Not surprisingly – the numbers of black kids going on to college were no where near the numbers of white kids because Mom/dad – with their stunted education lacked the resources to do so.

    back in the day – kids of those demographic circumstances had – options .

    They could join the military or get a manufacturing job that required only a minimal education.

    They could even run “numbers” (for those who know what they were) and not uncommon in blue states (like Va) they could do a brisk business selling liquor on Sunday.. none of which would put them in prison for years and render them unable to escape from that lifestyle.

    I’m not preaching sympathy or more entitlements programs here.

    I’m pointing out that a generational cycle of poor education leads to economic disaster not only for the folks themselves but for taxpayers.

    In the 21st century – if we are serious about how to deal with the issues – we get away from trying to find people and things to blame and we move on to what we have to do – to get more and more kids – to graduate into a job – not the street.

    Schools in poorer neighborhoods and urban cores need to have significant vocational education programs that basically train youngsters how to do basic jobs in the economy… if any of those kids want to go above that and set their sights on college – fine, go for it but the default should be that every kid is going to end up with a trained skill that will get them a job..

    we want to have more taxpayers, more people who can take care of their own needs .. and not need entitlements and not end up in prison for dealing street drugs..

    we should all want that.

    I do not understand the current blame game.. mentality.

    blame the parents. blame the teachers. then walk away .. essentially syaing “it’s not my fault, I did not cause their problems”.

  8. John B Avatar

    Jim, your comment: “Of course, Stihl is a German company.”

    Is that meant to be negative? I hope not. Stihl’s presence in USof A and Virginia and Virginia Beach in particular is a major benefit to us. They manufacture in large part for export so they could have located anywhere else like perhaps Mexico but they chose not to.

    1. Not negative at all — just a recognition that Germans are light years ahead of the United States when it comes to apprenticeships.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” light years ahead of the United States when it comes to apprenticeships”

    we agree.

    Now why is this such a heavy lift in the US and Virginia?

    1. That’s an interesting question. One possibility is that the U.S. has invested instead in the community college system, in which community colleges partner with business to train workers with specific skills needed by the companies. Perhaps communities get the same job done as in Germany — just differently. Or perhaps not. I don’t know. Another possible difference: The community-college model puts more of the financial burden of education on the taxpayer and the student — unless the German government shares in the cost of funding apprenticeships. Again, I don’t know.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    higher education is free in Germany…. or to put it more truthfully – it’s paid for with taxes…

    any student no matter where they are from – gets education and training.

    and why not? every kid who gets an education or trained is one less on entitlements…

    if we’re willing to pay someone thousands of dollars a year – for a lifetime of entitlements – why not pay what it takes to get them trained/educated?

  11. Darrell Avatar

    1,500-plus layoffs likely at Newport News Shipbuilding – headline Virginian Pilot yesterday.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      This has to change if there be any hope of avoiding WW III in our children’s lifetime (or perhaps our own) but those in power seem not to care so long as it gets them beyond the next election or at best though the next 15 years. What a craven immoral bunch of leaders we have today. Think Chamberlain.

  12. There is hope for the Commonwealth and the U.S. As Reed Fawell 3rd so eloquently stated in his description of the U.S. Army & Marine Infantry squads during WWII, we have such a vehicle in place doing that critical job of teaching boys how to be men. With no disrespect to women’s athletic endeavors or any other male sports, the high school football coach and sometimes the college football coach today serves the function as the WWII combat NCO did in the U.S. Army & Marine Corps. Coaches lead by example(life) as well as through their knowledge of the game and human nature. In assisting young boys to find a niche in the world, football coaches provide motivation, information, social guidance, and love for each and every one of their players. High school coaches in particular encourage high academic achievement among their charges and provide significant guidance when it comes to choosing a post-high school direction for each young man. In many cases, it is the “tough love” that high school coaches provide everyday (discipline – doing things right each and every day) that molds young boys into young men. Commitment, sacrifice, selflessness, responsibility, attention to detail, concern for your teammates and more are the lessons taught everyday by football coaches across this Commonwealth and the nation. Many career choices and social choices made by young men today are being influenced positively by football coaches. They recognize the needs of each individual, the strengths and weaknesses of each individual, and they are making a huge contribution to our general welfare. As football season is about to begin, tip your hat to these men. They believe in apprenticeships, scholarships, and fellowships that will benefit their athletes’ future interests.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Well said –

      When one sees, like I have, the fine high school football or lacrosse coach in action, the caliber and the breath of his achievements in turning boys into young men, and going it season after season, and year after year, it is awesome to behold. To my mind, there is no higher and more noble and necessary calling in world we now live in.

      It is no accident that many fine combat NCOs and Officers after WW II went on to become great high school teachers and coaches after the war. See for example Marine Lt,. Cornelius J. Vanderkolk under Tinian and Iwo Jima banners at

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Also for many examples of the critical rolls that NCOs played before and in WWII combat see the Saipan section found at:

        Note the many concrete examples of the NCOs’ powerful influence on their men at the squad level and also at the platoon and company level where they often in “kept the legs under green young officers” who were experiencing command for the first time before and during combat.

        NCOs, often unsung heroes, were the glue critical to combat success, particularly at its cutting edge, but often too in support as well, the latter roll also shown at Saipan.

        We need more of this kind of men, and their products, today in our society.

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