Very early on in a beginning economics course students are taught that goods and services—things we make that provide our daily bread—are produced by combinations of land (natural resources), labor, and capital (machines). Higher education involves embodying “human capital” into workers, making them more knowledgeable and skillful, and hopefully more mature, disciplined, honest, etc. as well. Using data on worker earnings and economic theory, I once estimated that a huge portion of America’s “human capital” was accumulated not through formal schooling (including college), but by informal “learning by doing” in the workplace or through family activities.

People receive valuable “certification” from a diploma for demonstrating formalized learning in school. But what about all the learning people get from on-the-job experiences? Shouldn’t they get “credit” both figuratively and literally for that, ultimately perhaps even getting a college diploma?

The idea is not new. For generations American companies have run training programs for workers, and some (General Motors comes immediately to mind) historically have even created formal education institutions and offered college credit. But the idea never has taken off in large magnitudes. Apprentice programs in the trades are the blue collar form of “learning by doing” that lead to good jobs for many.

The learning that workers receive on the job is sometimes narrow and very specific to the company providing the training, but often involves transferrable skills. IBM, perhaps the oldest major name in the computer business, offers such training to workers gathering skills in its software engineering computer training programs and now several schools are offering college credit for their IBM provided skill acquisitions via apprenticeship programs. The American Council of Education (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service has okayed credit for the IBM new Apprenticeship Pathways project. An Inside Higher Ed story quotes Louis Soares of ACE as saying, “When we created the land-grant colleges, we created a whole set of colleges designed around applied learning to advance the needs of average Americans and this is just an extension of that dialogue.”

Several schools such as Rowan University (New Jersey), Ivy Tech Community College (throughout Indiana) and California State University at San Bernardino are working with many companies besides IBM, including, for example, Microsoft, The Hartford (insurance) and T-Mobile. While software engineers are being trained by some firms, diverse occupations are involved: the Electrical Training Alliance is looking for outside line apprentices, while the Hartford group seeks disability analysts. The Charles Koch Foundation is funding the initial pilot project, which ACE hopes will grow from its starting base shortly to other companies and perhaps more participating institutions of higher education.

As stated before, I think it is smart for large companies to take education and training seriously, and to work with colleges and universities as well as other forms of education, such as private firms preparing individuals to earn a license as a long distance truck driver or an electrician. It has worked exceedingly well in Germany, for example. There are some issues, however. How much should college degrees be given for very specific type vocational training? What is the different between a college and a trade school?

It is widely accepted that colleges train for certain occupations, such as becoming civil or mechanical engineers, physicists or accountants. These areas require a good deal of rather rigorous technical training. But should you get a degree for working on outdoor lines for utility companies? Are we denigrating the meaning of a bachelor’s degree? Should degrees connote mostly an acquisition of a large body of general knowledge as opposed to specific skill acquisition? Are moves such as this a watering down the meaning of a college degree? Why not, as an excellent piece by Douglas Belkin in the Wall Street Journal argued recently, have students of whatever education simply pass a National College Equivalence Examination and be handed a degree?

All interesting questions open to varying answers. However, skill acquisition is a good thing, and colleges can help in providing it, so on balance I think the ACE/Koch Foundation initiative is to be applauded (an aside: this suggests the Koch Foundation is not simply an ideological group unconcerned with promoting true learning, as some critics have suggested).