There’s great momentum to expand apprenticeship, but as policymakers contemplate new strategies, among the key questions they must consider is: who is apprenticeship for? Today, apprenticeship remains concentrated in certain industry sectors, and apprentices themselves are disproportionately male and white. American apprentices are not particularly youthful either. The average age of an apprentice is closer to 30 than 18.
A growing number of states are working to drive that average down by extending apprenticeship opportunities to high school students in an effort to smooth transitions from school to careers. Colorado is in the pilot phase of building a statewide youth apprenticeship system for high school students. Washington is in the early stages of launching its own effort. Wisconsin, North and South Carolina, and Kentucky have all made investments to expand their existing youth apprenticeship systems too.
Youth apprenticeship’s appeal to policymakers is easy to understand. In countries with strong apprenticeship systems, youth unemployment is low and few young people find themselves disconnected from both work and education. Employers invest more in training and are highly engaged in local schools and economies. While the American apprenticeship system is quite small, it is still high-performing. More than 80 percent of apprentices complete their programs and move into full-time jobs where they earn an average starting wage of over $50,000 a year. And unlike most college graduates, they begin their careers free of student loan debt.
Expanding access to apprenticeships to more young people makes good sense. But building apprenticeship programs for high school students raises another question: which students will participate? That question alone introduces a host of complicated questions around how to ensure the programs do not reinforce educational inequality, particularly in relation to college access and preparedness. As states and cities work to expand youth apprenticeship, it is imperative they address the equity implications of creating another high-quality postsecondary option. Previous efforts to expand youth apprenticeship, including the School-to-Work initiative of the 1990s, foundered in part because of the powerful legacy of tracking within in American education.
Today there are a number of equity concerns for policymakers to consider within the design of youth apprenticeship initiatives. Those include ensuring programs avoid tracking students based on race or economic background, as well as making youth apprenticeship programs permeable to further higher education. That means that programs not only keep the option to continue their post-secondary education, but also ensure students acquire transferable college credit along the way. They should also work with industry to ensure programs do not reinforce occupational segregation by gender and race. By wrestling with these challenges on the front end, policymakers and industry will be more likely to overcome legitimate suspicions on the part of parents and civil rights advocates that the programs are just the latest iteration of an all too familiar American pattern of separate and unequal education.
But embedding equity into the next generation of apprenticeships will also require an eye to the future and to what has changed over the last two decades for students, parents, and employers. Today’s youth apprenticeship efforts are unfolding in a very distinct social and economic context: higher education is more necessary – and far more expensive – than just a decade ago; apprenticeships are becoming available in a growing number of industries, including IT, finance, and healthcare; competency-based and non-degree credentials are gaining greater currency in the labor market. High schools themselves in recent decades have become more segregated by race and socio-economic status. Each of these workforce trends opens up new opportunities to design apprenticeship programs that reduce social inequality and support economic mobility. Against that backdrop, ensuring expanded and equitable access to a new generation of youth apprenticeship programs may emerge as another pressing equity concern.There’s great promise in youth apprenticeship to improve education and economic outcomes for America’s youth. But equity cannot be an afterthought or a side issue – it must be at the center of design. That’s why New America’s Center on Education & Skills is excited to be partnering with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to gather diverse perspectives to help shed light on what these issues look like today. Over the coming year, we look forward to engaging with national and local leaders and learning about work going on in communities across the country. Our objective is to elevate the importance of putting equity at the center of expanding youth apprenticeship in order for current and future efforts to realize that great promise.