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How early should you decide on a trade career?

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The answer is that there is no answer.

Germany is a nation renowned for the high caliber of its trade workers and the goods they produce in construction and manufacturing. A big reason is a system for identifying mechanically adept individuals early on and tracking them into trade careers via apprenticeships.

Shortly after completing as little as nine years of school in Germany, teenagers may be assigned to an apprenticeship program in one of more than 350 trades. Then they divide their time between class work in a vocational school and practical training with an employer large or small. About 60% of Germany’s high school graduates choose vocational apprenticeships over college. That’s the reverse of here in the U.S. where an estimated 62.5% of high school grads go on to college.

Upon completion of their apprenticeships, German trade workers gain a certificate that’s said to be comparable to a college degree in terms of prestige and earning potential. Frequently they get hired with a permanent job at the company where they served their apprenticeship. If not, they usually don’t have much trouble finding comparable work with a different company.

Many people familiar with their system think we ought to do something similar in the U.S.

Not me.

That’s because we’re looking at two different cultures. While I admire German workmanship, I find their system of career tracking to be too rigid for our freewheeling American ways. Theirs is a country wedded to tradition. Ours is the land of opportunity and change. They value stability and discipline. We place a higher value on freedom and choices.

The down side of Germany’s vaunted apprenticeship system is that it is very difficult for people to switch careers once they get pigeonholed into a particular trade. If later in life they suddenly take an interest in a different field or decide to go to college, the obstacles are formidable. If demand plummets for their assigned line of work, they could be unemployed for years (the burden lightened by far more generous welfare benefits than in the U.S., however).

What brings me to this conclusion is that I’ve been hearing from my friends in the mechanical trades that the age of newcomers has shot up over the years. Years ago U.S. apprenticeship programs aimed to recruit teens right out of high school. Today’s apprentices are more likely to be men and women in their late 20s and 30s or even 40s. Many are college graduates who have spent years working dead-end jobs that pay little and bear no relationship to their studies. (Here in the U.S., we probably have the best educated restaurant servers and bartenders in human history!) A lot of these frustrated college grads discover later in life that the trades offer greater income potential and personal satisfaction.

So, if you have just finished high school and don’t know what you want to do with your life, that’s okay. Take some college courses and find any job that pays the bills while you figure out where you’re headed. In America, opportunity comes knocking at any stage of life.

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