It's time to close apprenticeship's long-overlooked equity gaps 
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With millions of workers still displaced by the impact of COVID-19, policymakers, employers, and workforce organizations are hunting for training and education solutions to help workers regain their economic footing. One model gaining surprising new ground is modern apprenticeship, the contemporary version of the centuries-old workforce strategy. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, which would help expand Registered Apprenticeships to an additional 1 million workers, a proposal favored by the Biden administration. 

This month, both Massachusetts and Utah announced they would expand access to apprenticeship opportunities across their states. Across the country, states like IowaMaryland, and New Jersey are investing precious general funds into apprenticeships in order to support their economic development and equity goals. 

It’s a continuation of a trend that began during the Obama administration: apprenticeships in the United States have undergone a major transformation. The model, developed over the past 100 years in large part by industrial labor unions, building trades, and other trades-based employers, is now being successfully used in a far broader range of industries and occupations, including health care, cybersecurity, and IT. Amazon, Google, Lockheed Martin, and thousands of other companies have developed or expanded their internal apprenticeship programs. 

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And with good reason: apprentices have the opportunity to earn while they learn, with an average annual wage of $70,000 upon completion and increased lifetime earnings. Employers, meanwhile, see a higher level of employee knowledge and job satisfaction resulting in an impressive 94 percent retention rate among apprentices.

The U.S. has added more than 200,000 new apprentices every year for the past three years. Even with declines caused by the economic crisis and COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the federal Registered Apprenticeship program still posted its third-highest gains in its 84-year history. Apprenticeships can provide critical on-the-job training for a generation of workers who have been displaced by the pandemic and need to retool for new occupations and industries. But while the model has proven to be remarkably adaptable to the evolving demands of the new economy, it has lagged in its efforts to similarly evolve to reflect the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce.

Although women make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force, they accounted for just 9.2 percent of all active apprentices in 2020, according to federal data. 

Meanwhile, Black and Latinx workers enroll in apprenticeships at rates comparable to their respective shares of the overall workforce, but complete at lower rates than those of white apprentices. Black and Latinx apprentices who complete apprenticeship programs also receive significantly lower wages than their white counterparts. With unemployment rates of 9.2 percent for Black workers and 7.4 percent for Latinx workers, apprenticeship could be a key strategy for reconnection if outcomes and completion rates were closer to that of white apprentices.

To fully realize the model’s potential, we must create a more purposeful approach to inclusive apprenticeship — one that seeks to right historic wrongs in workforce opportunity. 

Fortunately, a growing number of apprenticeship programs, employers and others are taking action to, at last, close apprenticeship’s long overlooked equity gaps. Aon’s apprenticeship program provides opportunities in insurance, cybersecurity, and HR for diverse learners to develop vital skills in the workplace, allowing them to earn, learn, and advance on the job. Last year, the firm announced it was doubling down on its diversity efforts through a partnership with OneTen, a coalition of corporate CEOs working to see one million Black Americans hired into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement within the next decade.

Meanwhile, the software development recruiter Techtonic is pledging to hire 100 people of color as apprentices, partnering with a range of companies and partners to make the goal a reality. At the Apprentice School operated by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, where one of us serves as a staff member, 19 percent of students are women and 39 percent are people of color —  percentages significantly higher than the national average.

In some industries, apprenticeship programs can play a particularly helpful role in breaking down racial, ethnic and gender-based gaps in industries that have historically been dominated by white men. Chicago Women in the Trades, for example, is using apprenticeship to help women in low-wage jobs prepare for higher-paying roles in industries like construction, welding, plumbing, carpentry, and electrical repair, helping to meet demand for skilled talent in construction and the trades in Chicago’s multi-billion dollar construction industry. Similar efforts are under way in communities across the country to use apprenticeship to bring more women and people of color into IT-related occupations.

These examples show how we can retool apprenticeship to become much more inclusive and reflective of the vast diversity of the American workforce. Those shifts did not — and will not — happen by chance. Instead, they require us to carefully examine and dismantle the root causes of bias, stigma, and inequities in workforce training, hiring, and the workplace itself. 

As the U.S. charts a path forward to recovery, policy, business, and labor leaders have an opportunity to rectify the history of racial and gender inequity in apprenticeship and the broader workforce. We must widen access to apprenticeship opportunities to more female, Black, and Latinx workers. We must make shifts in policy and practice to ensure that every American worker can benefit from the sort of economic gains and workforce outcomes we know that work-based learning is capable of producing. Only then can apprenticeship truly make good on its historic promise of better jobs and wages to increase social and economic mobility for all.

Seleznow directs JFF's Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning. JFF is a national nonprofit that seeks to transformation of the American workforce and education systems to ensure access to economic advancement for all. Latitia McCane is director of Education for The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding.