What Eva Arriaga lacked was options. Her medical assistant certificate, paid for with $15,000 in burdensome student loans, wasn’t enough to support her and her family. Though the Houston-area economy was booming, with thousands of high-paying jobs out there, Eva simply lacked the qualifications for the kind of job that provides a real future.

Then she found an innovative, employer-led apprenticeship program through S&B Engineers and Constructors Ltd. in Houston. She was paid $17 an hour to learn a trade in very, very high demand in Texas—pipefitting. Upon completing the program, she began a job with S&B helping to build a new petroleum facility, at $21 per hour.

Eva found options—the kind of choices that far too many Americans feel they have too few of.

Gen Z, for example, is rejecting the “college for all” mindset. Young men, in particular, are turning away from higher education. Male enrollment in four-year colleges has been declining for over a decade. Today, only 39% of young men with a high school diploma enrolled in a four-year college in 2023, a sharp decline from 2011, when 47% enrolled in college after graduation.

Male prime-age labor force participation has been declining for the last 50 years, reaching its nadir in April 2020 at 66%. As of January 2024, it has still not recovered to its pre-pandemic level.

Apprenticeships can offer a pathway for young people who are interested in pursuing vocational education right out of high school. Historically, apprenticeships were the normal preparation for professions ranging from stonemason to attorney.

In the U.S., the formal definition of apprenticeship is tied to Depression-era legislation. While apprenticeships have gained more attention in recent years, they are far from a common pathway for professional training. There were 98,524 apprenticeship completers in 2023, but only 35% of apprentices completed their program.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., a “shortfall of 8 million skilled workers is expected to hit the U.S. labor force by 2027, as a chief source to help fill that growing gap – immigrants and their children – will lack the training to do so,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

Labor unions have complicated matters, however.

Labor unions were instrumental in drafting the legislation that created the Registered Apprenticeship Program and remain dedicated to protecting it. Why? In Texas, registered apprenticeship committees can be operated by labor unions, employers, or a combination of the two. In addition, they must provide for training that aligns with the Office of Apprenticeship’s standards for “apprenticeable trades.” This means that training for jobs that aren’t designated as “apprenticeable” aren’t able to be registered apprenticeships. Union apprentices make up 46% of all apprenticeships in the nation, and 31% in Texas. Union-run apprenticeship committees are a key pipeline

The overall rate of union membership has been declining for years, reaching 10% of the overall labor force in 2024. Private sector union membership continues at its record low of 6%.

While many conservatives are aware of the woke policies supported by public sector unions such as the American Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten, fewer conservatives are aware of how these public sector unions work together with private sector labor unions towards a common left-wing agenda.

Because a significant share of registered apprenticeships are tied to unions, conservatives should be wary of expanding them or prescribing them as the postsecondary pathway of choice for young people who are seeking to avoid leftist indoctrination in higher education.

Conservatives should focus their workforce education efforts on policies that create alternatives to the Registered Apprenticeship Program. Recent research from TPPF points to the need for alternatives to RAPs to meet the scale of the for skilled workers in the trades and other high-wage, high-demand occupations in Texas.

A promising federal policy that the Trump administration supported was the Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP). It created “standards recognizing entities” (SREs) instead of apprenticeship committees to oversee the quality of programs, prioritizing the skills required by employers for various professions, rather than standards influenced by labor unions.

Construction trades (such as pipefitting) which account for nearly a third of all apprentices nationwide, were excluded from IRAP under pressure from labor union members.

Expanding alternatives is incomplete if these alternatives don’t include construction trades. Even with construction trades excluded from the program, President Biden killed the program in February 2021.

Expanding Registered Apprenticeships as an alternative to woke higher education would simply be playing the left’s game on a different field.

Young people—Texans like Eva Arriaga—deserve options. Conservatives who want young people to find their callings and thrive should work to create employer-led and skills-based programs that offer these. Young people deserve more choices than woke higher education or woke unions.