Can Apprenticeships Keep Up With The Kardashians?

My 8-year-old son Zev is good at asking profound questions. Recently, he’s come up with ones like: Is it important to be happy? And what happens after we die? But at a dinner last month, he put down his fork and asked perhaps the most profound question of all: “Why is Kim Kardashian famous?”

My immediate response was “she’s famous for being famous,” but Zev wasn’t satisfied by this ontological conundrum. So I did some work and reported back that her fame derives from a reality TV show, that it grew from marrying an NBA player and remarrying rapper Kanye West, but is best encapsulated by an iPhone game called Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the object of which is to become a Hollywood star, as well as a 2015 book called Selfish: 325 pages of Kim Kardashian selfies.

In the course of this time-consuming, thought-provoking research, I identified a more substantive basis for her fame: following her widely reported interest in criminal justice reform, Kim is now pursuing an apprenticeship and hopes to pass the California Bar Exam and practice law. As she noted on one of her many social media channels: “The [California] state bar doesn’t care who you are. This option is available to anyone who’s [sic] state allows it. It’s true I did not finish college. You need 60 college credits (I had 75) to take part in “reading the law”, which is an in office law school being apprenticed by lawyers.” Then, demonstrating kinship with every student everywhere, she went on to complain about “a big torts essay due on negligence.”

The word apprentice comes from the Latin/French “apprendre” (to learn) and a century ago it was the default career path for professionals. Before bachelor’s degrees became the ante to try to win a starting position in a desirable profession, and before colleges and universities began spinning up thousands of carefully crafted and market research tested master’s programs, your best option was to catch on with an existing practitioner: lurk around the office, try to be useful, learn what you could. Informal apprenticeships gave Ben Franklin his start (apprenticed to a printer), as well as Paul Revere (silversmith). They go back to the Roman Empire and vestiges remain in the willingness of the Bar Associations of California and three other states to allow apprentices to take the Bar Exam (although in law it’s truly a vestige: in the past 3 years, no California Bar exam has seen more than 10 apprentices).

Extending apprenticeships beyond printing and smithing to 21st century professional services like technology, financial services, and health care is a top priority of the Trump Administration: a strategy that promises to kill two birds with one stone: (1) address the crises of college affordability, completion, and employability; and (2) play to the Republican base by challenging what is perceived to be an elitist and politically intolerant college monopoly. As a result, to complement the registered apprenticeships engaging about 500,000 participants in programs in blue collar building and industrial trades but imposing regulatory burdens that scare off all but the most ardent apprenticeship organizers, the Department of Labor has announced a new form of apprenticeship: Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs). IRAPs will establish an apprenticeship version of accreditors – federally-recognized, but industry-based “Standards Recognition Entities” (SREs) – to oversee new employer-run apprenticeships in a less heavy-handed, red tape-laden manner than the Department of Labor.

This light beer version of apprenticeships has already attracted critics for watering down quality assurance, and more important, for failing to identify a permanent source of funding for apprenticeship training. At the end of June, the Department of Labor announced $184M in grants to try to jump start new apprenticeships. But this level of funding is a drop in the bucket – at $10,000 per, it wouldn’t support 20,000 apprentices for a year – and there’s no indication that even this level of funding (from H-1B visa fees) will be permanent.

But the bigger challenge with extending employer-run apprenticeships is that not everyone is Kim Kardashian. In her Instagram post, Kim concluded: “There is nothing that should limit your pursuit of your dreams, and the accomplishment of new goals. You can create your own lanes, just as I am.” The problem, of course, is that an apprenticeship requires a willing employer – exactly the sort of thing someone with 143.2M Instagram followers is positioned to arrange. In Kim’s case, the employer is a San Francisco-based law firm introduced by her friend, CNN commentator Van Jones.

I’ve read numerous biographies of 19th and 20th century titans of industry who began their careers with apprenticeships arranged through family connections. While apprenticeships would seem to be more democratic than tuition-based, debt-inducing higher education programs, they haven’t been. Historically, employer-based apprenticeships in high earning white collar professions have been even more elitist. So to correct Kim, “There is nothing that should limit your pursuit of your dreams [as long as you’re a Vanderbilt, a Morgan, or know Van Jones].”

Why? Because employers have other things to do, like develop and sell products and services to customers and meet financial targets. (The set of researchers and policy makers who fail to realize this is probably identical to the set of researchers and policy makers who’ve never worked in the private sector.) Training the next generation of talent isn’t a priority unless you’re doing a favor for a connected friend, or unless your German or Swiss parent company tells you to. (It seems like the majority of employer-run professional services apprenticeship programs in the U.S. are at subsidiaries of German and Swiss companies.) Joe Fuller, co-lead of the Managing the Future of Work initiative at Harvard Business School, recently shared with me that large employers like JPMorgan Chase are under such assault on the skills gap that some have effectively developed departments to greet, meet, and say goodbye to social entrepreneurs. In fact, hiring itself is rarely a priority at U.S. employers, which explains why HR is an undervalued function and why more than 75% of hiring managers do not act decisively.

As Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs fail to keep up with the Kardashians, there will be two alternative avenues for growth. First are government-run programs. Various Democratic candidates have proposed expanding national service programs like AmeriCorps. But the goals of expansion are impact, community, and diversity – not creating new pathways to employment. If the federal government can afford an expansion of national service – as Mayor Pete suggests, making it available to “all who want it” – failing to do the work of aligning these programs with in-demand digital and soft skills in growth industries would mark a level of negligence meriting inclusion in Kim Kardashian’s upcoming torts essay. National service can and should be an alternative pathway to great jobs.

Returning to the private sector, even if sufficient funding were made available for the cost of apprenticeship training, nothing that the Trump Administration has proposed would solve the fundamental problem of convincing employers that it’s a great idea to have hundreds or thousands of 19- and 20-year-olds running around the office. There’s a reason campus ivy-covered walls are often high and impenetrable: to keep the pressures of the outside world out, and to keep thousands of 19- and 20-year-olds in. As a result, at any old employer, the supply of quality professional services apprenticeships will inevitably be very limited, providing a leg up to the connected Kardashians of the world. (And don’t expect to see Operation Varsity Blues-level reporting on the back doors and side doors to these slots.)

So the second strategy is to focus on those employers with the potential to scale apprenticeships beyond the reach of nepotism and connections. Which employers are these? Staffing and business services companies in skill gap areas with the potential to build big businesses in sourcing, screening, and training entry-level talent. These are companies with a commercial incentive to scale the production and through-putting of purpose-trained, entry-level talent for clients facing talent shortages.

These industries and companies must become the new locus of U.S. apprenticeship policy. Because the employer-run apprenticeships that scale will be those that incorporate talent as a product or service for customers – models that can help the apprenticeship providers themselves meet financial targets. We call these “outsourced apprenticeships” i.e., apprenticeships operated by specialist companies on behalf of hundreds of clients. Policy makers can accelerate the growth of outsourced apprenticeships by recognizing that not all employer-run apprenticeships are created equal, and that IRAPs, SREs, and scarce funding should be designed and allocated accordingly.

In a recent issue of Vogue, Kim Kardashian created yet another new lane in legal education by turning a law school textbook into a fashion accessory. According to one headline, “the pricey textbook costs almost as much as her shoes.” It takes a special something to do this – and to convince a San Francisco law firm to create an apprenticeship. Policy makers focused on expanding apprenticeships from the old to the new economy need to recognize this and focus their efforts accordingly. Otherwise, what hope is there for poor Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie?