Skilled trades worksites need culture change for youth work-based learning to deliver equity

Until discrimination and harassment are stomped out, improvements in the representation of women, LGBTQ+, and communities of color in the construction trades cannot materialize through youth work-based learning
Blog Post
Natalie Forbes | Getty Images
Oct. 20, 2022

Whenever you hear about apprenticeship and work-based learning models, you’re likely to hear about their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) benefits. But alongside promising case studies and a growing track record of success, it’s important to acknowledge that not all apprentices enjoy positive experiences.

Especially in the construction trades—the traditional stronghold of the Registered Apprenticeship system—repeated incidents of harassment and discrimination have harmed female apprentices, LGBTQ+ apprentices, and racial minorities. No one—especially young adults—can learn and develop new skills in settings where they feel unwelcome and unsafe. Youth-focused apprenticeship and work-based learning models, which increasingly appeal to construction employers facing labor shortages, can only flourish in workplaces where these issues have been addressed.

The skilled trades—a broad occupational category that includes construction jobs such as plumbing, carpentry, painting, and electrical as well as roles in automotive technology, aviation, and manufacturing—are not as well represented in the growing youth apprenticeship field as in traditional, adult-focused apprenticeships. Understanding why was one goal of research my colleague Taylor White and I conducted last year on youth work-based learning in the skilled trades.

The employers, union representatives, education leaders, and workforce intermediaries we convened in our discussion groups almost universally agreed that skilled trades youth apprenticeships and other work-based learning (WBL) opportunities should be made available to more young people. They saw youth WBL as a key opportunity for meeting labor needs in skilled trades sectors facing hiring challenges and the loss of workers to retirement, and considered it a good way to improve gender and racial diversity among skilled trades workers.

We learned about several equitable, high-quality WBL models for youth in the skilled trades. In Georgia, the nonprofit Construction Ready delivers construction and manufacturing coursework to students in over 180 high schools, preparing them for paid employment in the state’s formal Youth Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning programs. In Minnesota, the union-affiliated Construction Career Pathways model starts with career exploration opportunities, then allows interested students to pursue classroom-based construction education and paid summer internships. Still, significant barriers stand in the way of national adoption of similar WBL models in the skilled trades.

Since we began our project in late 2020, a number of reports have shed light on these ongoing harms. In January 2021, Caroline Preston of the Hechinger Report published a gripping account of the harassment and retaliation faced by a female sheet metal apprentice in Seattle. This summer, harassment of another Seattle apprentice—this time a Black carpenter—prompted the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Office of Apprenticeship to issue Bulletin 2022-95, a directive spelling out sponsors’ responsibilities to protect apprentices. At the end of last month, Brent Parton, a senior DOL official (and former New America staff member), published a blog post decrying discriminatory and hateful acts against apprentices.

Harassment and exclusion of women, LGBTQ+ workers, and racial minorities is common in many occupations, not just construction. In construction and other skilled trades, however, massive underrepresentation of these groups appears to make discrimination and harassment more widespread. And although race- and gender-based harassment and exclusion may not be formal practices in skilled trades worksites—and despite the avowedly inclusive intentions of many apprenticeship programs—Portland State University professor Maura Kelly and her colleagues argue in a 2015 journal article that apprenticeship programs in construction trades can function as “inequality regimes,” informally perpetuating inequalities through workplace interactions, hiring methods, and supervisor practices.

“If you give people some tools to respond to harassment and discrimination on the job, they will do those things. But we haven’t seen implementation high enough to bring down levels of harassment on the job site.”

Advancing DEI goals through apprenticeship and WBL is impossible on job sites where racist and sexist incidents occur. So, what can be done to dismantle these cultures where they exist? In an interview, Kelly told me that an ideal approach includes bottom-up training, resources, and support for individual workers as well as top-down culture change driven by leaders in industry, labor, and government.

Bottom-up support for the individual worker and apprentice goes beyond encouraging incident reporting, which is important but not enough, especially for youth with limited experience of power dynamics in the workplace. Pre-apprenticeship programs like those provided by California’s Tradeswomen, Inc. and Chicago Women in Trades
provide marginalized workers with job skills, career awareness, and mentorship that can help prepare them for construction worksites and colleagues who may judge them more harshly than their white cisgender male peers. Bystander intervention training initiatives, such as the national Green Dot program implemented by Alteristic, are designed to empower workers to support colleagues facing aggression on the job and also show promise.

But Kelly says that top-down change is essential, and also much harder to achieve. “If you give people some tools to respond to harassment and discrimination on the job, they will do those things,” she said. “But we haven’t seen implementation high enough to bring down levels of harassment on the job site.” Inclusive worksite standards in public works contracts, such as Seattle’s Acceptable Work Sites provision or the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s Issues equity framework, are imperfect but create financial incentives to address harassment and discrimination. RISE Up, which has been adopted by key associations, unions, and contracting firms in Oregon, Washington State, Massachusetts, and soon Missouri, takes a more holistic approach by including manager and worker training, disciplinary provisions, and monitoring and evaluation.

Diligent, decades-long efforts to make the trades more inclusive for women, LGBTQ+ workers, and people of color provide proven tools for improving DEI in apprenticeship opportunities. But the problems won’t go away—and emerging youth work-based learning models cannot succeed—until and unless they’re confronted head-on. Employers, policymakers, and program leaders must acknowledge harassment and discrimination, learn from emerging best practices, and make clear, meaningful commitments to changing the status quo if the growing national movement for youth apprenticeship is to make real inroads into the skilled trades.

Correction: This article was updated on November 2, 2022 to reflect that Alteristic implements the Green Dot program. Oregon Tradeswomen was involved in the Oregon pilot of Green Dot, but does not implement the program.

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Related Topics
Youth Apprenticeship Workforce Development & CTE Racial Equity Gender Equity