EVERY day, Benjamin Pascual dons a white lab coat like other workers in the Boston City Hospital radiology department. He develops film from scanning machines and observes as specialists use the images to examine patients.
What's unusual is that Mr. Pascual is a junior in high school. He is one of 87 students in Project ProTech, an apprenticeship program started last fall to help Boston youths prepare for careers in health care. The four-year program starts in 11th grade and leads to a high school degree, a two-year degree from a technical school or community college, and a skills certificate from the hospital.
Youth apprenticeship programs like this one are beginning to sprout across the country, prompted by concerns that the United States is failing to prepare its young people to enter the work force in an era of increasing global competition.
"For noncollege-bound students in the United States, [today's] education is irrelevant to them and their employers," says Gov. John McKernan (R) of Maine, who is developing a statewide apprenticeship program.
But apprenticeship faces an uphill battle in the US. In Germany 70 percent of students, including many who later get a college degree, go through apprenticeship programs, notes Hilary Pennington, president of Jobs For the Future, a nonprofit research organization in Cambridge, Mass.
US vocational education is viewed by many students and educators as second-class. Attention is focused on America's world-recognized universities. Yet almost half of the nation's young people never get there.
"There has been no coherent effort to reach out to employers or interest them" in apprenticeship, Ms. Pennington says. She says the US has only about 1,000 people in youth apprenticeships - programs in which learning at school and work leads to formal credentials for a career. (More than 200,000 workers in construction and other trades learn their jobs as apprentices, but these workers are no longer in school.)
Wisconsin, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Michigan, and Oregon are developing youth apprenticeship programs. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton is a strong proponent of the idea, and President Bush proposed in April a $55-million National Youth Apprenticeship Act to promote such programs. In outlining the legislation, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin noted that three-quarters of Americans do not get a four-year degree, "yet they are the backbone of our future work force."
The stakes are not only economic, but social, Governor McKernan said in a recent interview. "This country is going to break apart if we have half the people with no economic opportunity."
Although the US programs to date are humble by comparison to Germany's, Pennington says she is hopeful that the US can develop a broad system of youth apprenticeship as companies recognize the advantages of doing so. Businesses are already involved in cooperative education programs that in 1990 served 430,000 students, 8 percent of the nation's juniors and seniors in high school. These programs give academic credit for part-time jobs.
However, advocates of apprenticeship say the need is not for teenagers simply to have jobs but for them to be prepared for a career. The apprentice should gain formal credentials that are recognized industrywide.
"Tinkering around the edges ... doesn't quite meet the needs," says McKernan, who currently chairs the Education Commission of the States.
In Germany, industry groups known as chambers decide what apprentices should learn. Virtually all businesses participate, and labor unions and educators are represented on the chamber committees that set standards. If youth apprenticeship is to succeed here, US industry associations may need to take on a similar credential-setting role, some experts say.
A more basic problem is getting businesses onto the apprenticeship bandwagon in the first place. Businesses are increasingly keen to get an educational system that better meets their needs, and this would give them direct involvement. But McKernan is having to build support one company at a time.
Maine's program is starting with seven employers in insurance, medical-records management, and machine tools. The governor recently hosted a dinner for business people to line up more participants. If programs like Maine's fail, "it will be because the business community failed to live up to its needed involvement," he says.
Pennington says demand for apprentices appears to be strong in the metalworking industry, which has a high proportion of workers near retirement. In Wisconsin and Tulsa, Okla., metalworking shops will be taking apprentices next fall.
In Boston, the ProTech students choose from eight health-care occupations. The four-year program includes full-time work each summer and part-time work every afternoon during school years. Six hospitals are participating. The four apprentices at Boston City Hospital - Pascual, Vivian Bonilla, Natasha Vasquez, and Laitasha McNary - travel by bus or subway to work after school. On Fridays, their science class is at the hospital, visiting various departments.
Pascual says he plans to use his experience to go into either radiology or to become an emergency medical technician. Ms. Bonilla says she may train to be a nurse.
The apprentices are also learning about the human interaction the work involves. As he checks people in for scans, Pascual says some patients are friendly and others irritable. "You get all types of people," he says.
Advocates of apprenticeship say that even if participants switch occupations, they will have learned important skills. Asked if he feels too young to be focusing on a career, Pascual says: "Now is the perfect time."