For the past two weeks, my wife has been walking the picket line. She’s a proud member of the Writers Guild of America which has shut down Hollywood by striking studios, networks, and streaming services. She’s also a member of the negotiating committee that called the strike when the other side refused to parley on incidental topics like refraining from replacing writers with ChatGPT. When she’s not picketing, the writers strike is all she talks about – domestic harmony supplanted by dissonant dichotomies like Wall Street vs. workers and profits vs. people. She has vowed “no more writing,” prompting me to remove paper and pen from the kitchen in case she’s tempted to write a note or grocery list. I’ve told her not to worry; this week I’m doing the writing for both of us.
I try to be a supportive husband but nonetheless look forward to conversations not premised on class struggle. Last week she returned home early from picketing Fox so we could attend Zev’s volleyball game – not a huge sacrifice as the line outside Fox is staid compared to the party going on outside Netflix. I was excited for an organized-labor-free hour when a parent I didn’t recognize sat down next to me. Actually, I did recognize him. It was James Corden. In the most L.A. thing that’s ever happened to anyone, for the next hour America’s favorite late night singing Brit proceeded to ignore his son’s volleyball game so he could talk strike with my wife sitting on my other side. Now I know how Che Guevara’s wife must have felt – if Che Guevara’s wife was trying to watch 6th grade volleyball stuck between Che and the world’s most excitable and talkative man.
Besides the existential threat of AI, writers are upset about how streaming seems to be transforming good jobs into gig work. Streaming’s land- (or subscriber-) grab where no one really knows what works – see e.g., during Covid everyone looking for another Ted Lasso feel-good show, the next big hit is Squid Game – has meant throwing a stunning amount of content against the wall to see what sticks. In finding ways to produce 500+ shows per year, writers got sideswiped. Writers are paid per episode and season orders have declined from 23 (broadcast) to 10-13 (cable) to as few as six (streaming), which means more time between shows and less job security. As the Writers Guild has said, “the companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union work force.” At the same time, six quality episodes can still take a year or more to write and produce; while most writers have a maximum number of weeks they can work, studios have cunningly exploited their artistic integrity to get free work, and none more than Netflix which richly deserves the chaos on Sunset Blvd. (although perhaps not one afternoon last week when, in an epic scheduling mishap, a parent-and-toddler picket and a sex worker picket were slated for the same time).
Finally, while shows once were created by a large group of writers of various tenure (the “writers’ room”), television’s golden age is increasingly written in eight-week “mini rooms” of 3-4 writers. Because mini-room writers are paid the same, they’re all very experienced, leaving no jobs for entry- or mid-level writers. The Writers Guild argues – convincingly in my household – that studios are being penny-wise but pound foolish. George R.R. Martin agrees, penning his own junior writer origin story, prompting a nod from – of all people – Elon Musk (prompting the Writers Guild to tweet “Didn’t see this one coming”). Who’s going to create and run hit shows in 5-10 years when young writers have little opportunity to write, let alone cast and produce? The answer is not obvious. What is obvious is that the demise of the economic ladder in ostensibly liberal Hollywood is proof positive that, left to their own devices, most companies aren’t serious about investing in their future workforce.
Companies make investments when there’s some certainty of a return in a reasonable time frame. Workforce investments typically have neither. Investing in a young writer may pay off in a few years, or 5, 10, or never. And there’s no guarantee that writer won’t take his pen and paper and create a hit show for another studio (the free rider problem) – or stay home and write notes and grocery lists. So while we may cast aspersions at (or even picket) profit-maximizing employers, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we go to work with the employers we have, not the ones we might want, no matter how short-sighted or selfish they may seem. And that’s why a qualified workforce must be viewed as a public good and why we desperately need more and much smarter public investment in workforce development.
Actually, we do invest in workforce development. It’s just tiny compared to what we spend on K-12 and college i.e., in the billions, not hundreds of billions. One reason is that many workforce training programs are even less effective than schools. Most of the programs that apply to be on a state’s approved “eligible training provider list” (ETPL) are in it for the WIOA (Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act) money. (ETPLs are little ETP-hells because literally anyone can apply to be listed with no accountability for outcomes.) There are dozens of pockets of low return-on-investment workforce funding. There’s Job Corps, a notoriously ineffective (but politically hard-to-kill) nearly $2B program with negligible effects on long-term employment. During Covid, Veterans Affairs spent $386 million on a Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance program that yielded 397 jobs – just under $1M per new job. Less than 1% of workforce spending is tied to employment outcomes and only one in three job seekers participating in WIOA training ends up employed in a related field.
Workforce development that starts with training and hopes for the best (“train and pray”) doesn’t work well. What does work is starting with a good job and building in training. That’s apprenticeship. But public support for apprenticeships is fraction of what we spend on useless workforce training programs and a joke compared to what we spend on college. While federal, state, and local governments continue to pour over $400 billion each year into college, total spending on apprenticeship is under $400 million. That’s a ratio of 1,000:1. As Urban Institute’s Bob Lerman has noted, “apprentices receive on average about 2% of the support that taxpayers spend on a typical college student.”
And just as public support for workforce development has been hampered by a misguided funding model (i.e., training instead of good jobs with built-in training), public support for apprenticeship has similarly suffered from wasting money on paper apprenticeships.
How are we funding apprenticeships? Every year or two for the past decade, the Department of Labor has run a new program that doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to organizations that promise to expand apprenticeships. The programs have eerily similar names: American Apprenticeship Initiative, ApprenticeshipUSA, Scaling Apprenticeship, Apprenticeship Grants to Close the Skills Gap, Apprenticeship Building America – why fix it if it’s not broken, right? Most of this funding has gone directly to community colleges or to state and local governments or workforce boards that may contract with community colleges. (Apprenticeship funding so far this year hasn’t been any different: an $8M grant to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to build RTI for the booming EV sector and then another $90M to seven community colleges and a slew of government agencies and nonprofits.)
What are community colleges doing with $5M or $10M in federal apprenticeship funding? Three things:
While formal classroom instruction is an important part of apprenticeship, it’s secondary to the job itself (and probably to on-the-job training). And unless and until an employer is willing to make the many investments required to launch an apprenticeship program and hire apprentices, there’s no demand for RTI curriculum no matter how employer-aligned, perfectly formed, or expensive the curriculum may be. As a result, the federal RAPIDS database – what’s supposed to be the authoritative listing of America’s apprenticeship programs – is littered with apprenticeships that exist only on paper. In researching my upcoming book,   Apprentice Nation, I found that while RAPIDS lists over 5,000 apprenticeships outside the construction trades, only about 200 appear to be actually hiring apprentices – rendering RAPIDS practically useless for anyone interested in an apprenticeship.
Community colleges that suck up apprenticeship dollars, develop curriculum, register their “apprenticeship program,” list it in RAPIDS, and then wait for employers to knock on their door seeking curriculum and instruction are wasting taxpayer dollars. Without intermediaries willing and able to do much more of the heavy lifting involved in setting up and running an apprenticeship program, employers won’t answer the door, let alone knock on a community college’s door. Paper apprenticeships are doing a disservice to apprenticeship specifically, and to public confidence and investment in workforce development more broadly.
In last week’s New York Times, America’s most palatable conservative, David Brooks, wrote about how delayed adolescence and helicopter parenting have made young Americans danger- and risk-averse. In classrooms they’re less willing to argue for fear of being judged. Only 32% of 8th and 10th graders say they “take risks sometimes.” In considering how best to prepare and launch a generation that’s hypervigilant to risks, we need to recognize that for every dollar we invest in low- to no-risk job-based training, we’re spending $1,000 on risky tuition- and debt-based training with no guarantee of employment outcomes. I’m not suggesting it should be equal, or even 5:1 or 10:1. But it’s bonkers to argue it should remain at the current 1,000:1 ratio or that the default should continue to be that surplus federal and state dollars flow automatically to colleges.
The key is to recognize that workforce development starts with work and jobs, not training. Which means funding organizations that actually provide jobs, not merely training – even Hollywood studios or – gasp – Netflix. If we subsidize training providers first, we end up with paper apprenticeships. Conversely, by giving paper apprenticeships their walking papers, the entire workforce development endeavor becomes more attractive and fundable.
During this writers strike, I’ve gotten rid of paper. Let’s do the same with apprenticeships. By approaching workforce development with a clean sheet, we can finally do the write thing.