Let’s Make it Official: Youth Apprenticeship Needs a Federal Definition

Early adopters of youth apprenticeship built programs to fit into existing local systems. Now, as new programs continue to emerge nationwide, the federal government must act to make sure all youth apprentices benefit from established best practices.
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Nov. 19, 2021

Apprenticeship features prominently in stories about American culture. Ben Franklin was a printer’s apprentice. Mickey Mouse was a sorcerer’s apprentice. Donald Trump played an apprentice sponsor on TV. But despite its appearances in our cultural history, and though successive presidential administrations have helped to double apprenticeship participation since 2009, apprentices still make up less than one-half of 1 percent of the American workforce. As a result, conversations about apprenticeship still often feature an explanatory aside: what is it?

Apprenticeship is both a universal educational process and a national regulatory construct. On the one hand, it’s a way all humans can learn through paid, on-the-job experience paired with related classroom instruction. It’s also a specific learning program that exists, as Registered Apprenticeship, in American law.

Youth apprenticeship has a basic educational definition, too—it’s the same as apprenticeship, just pursued by young people—but in the United States, it has no national legal definition. Depending on where it takes place, youth apprenticeship may be the same as Registered Apprenticeship, it may be defined separately, or it may have no formal definition at all.

With no national definition to adhere to, early youth apprenticeship leaders were able to experiment and innovate to match the contours of their states’ laws and education systems as well as employers’ needs. But as best practices emerge in programs across the country, and as youth apprenticeship is called upon to support recovery from the worst economic crisis in a century, this definitional free-for-all has outlived its utility, and now risks creating entrenched inconsistencies in youth apprenticeship program quality, equity, and accountability. It’s time to define youth apprenticeship in federal law.

Youth apprenticeship’s current standing in federal law

In the U.S., the regulatory definition enshrined in the system of Registered Apprenticeship gives structure to the earn-and-learn apprenticeship model. Authorized by the National Apprenticeship Act of 1939 and codified in 29 CFR Parts 29 and 30, the definition of Registered Apprenticeship sets out specific features and processes that make apprenticeship a legal entity and help ensure the needs of apprentices and employers are met. Of course, registered apprentices must learn both on the job and in the classroom, and earn a wage while doing so, but their programs must also be aligned to skill standards and they must culminate in a credential demonstrating proficiency.

The regulatory definition of Registered Apprenticeship supplies other crucial details, too. Regulations in 29 CFR Part 29 set out the different ways apprenticeship programs can be structured (time-based, competency-based, or hybrid), and also how long they should last. Part 29 also specifies labor protections for apprentices—including workplace safety, a clear contract, and a wage that increases with skills gains—and Part 30 includes equal employment opportunity requirements to give all Americans a fair shot at apprenticeship positions. The Registered Apprenticeship system also clearly establishes a minimum age for apprentices: 16 years old, unless occupational safety laws dictate otherwise.

Although the current Registered Apprenticeship system permits youth participation, some states’ labor laws, like New York’s, restrict young peoples’ working hours in a way that makes Registered Apprenticeship impracticable for high school students. States where youth apprenticeship is defined in law and regulation can exempt approved apprenticeships from “hours of work” laws. But while state youth apprenticeship definitions can help fit career-relevant on-the-job training into students’ schedules, they don’t necessarily deliver all of the features that make apprenticeship educationally and economically rewarding for learners.

State definitions of youth apprenticeship

In 2018, the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA) stepped into this gap and introduced a national definition and five guiding principles for youth apprenticeship. The goal of proposing a national definition was to introduce some consistency to the field and lay a foundation for the growth of youth apprenticeship.

Recently, New America looked through the laws and regulations of 15 states to better understand how closely their definitions aligned with the PAYA definition and principles. These states were selected to capture a variety of definitions, and include states with established systems as well as states relatively new to youth apprenticeship. The full list and links to their definitions can be found below.

We found that definitions varied widely, even with regards to foundational parts of apprenticeship. The PAYA definition for high-quality youth apprenticeships has four key components, each closely aligned with the national definition for Registered Apprenticeship:

  • Paid, on-the-job learning under the supervision of skilled employee mentors
  • Ongoing assessment against established skills and competency standards
  • Related, classroom-based instruction
  • Culmination in a portable, industry-recognized credential and postsecondary credit

None of the states in the sample had a definition that included all four of the key aspects of the PAYA definition of youth apprenticeship. Instead, state definitions of youth apprenticeship are a patchwork, each having some of the pieces but none explicitly requiring all of the components necessary to fulfill youth apprenticeship’s promise for workers, employers, and communities.

Of the 15 state definitions considered, most require that youth apprentices be paid; only Georgia’s does not, although its work-based learning handbook does encourage pay for youth apprentices. When it comes to related classroom-based instruction, four of the states have a minimum hours requirement and three states recommend one. Just over half of the definitions we examined require ongoing assessment against skill and competency standards. Only four definitions mention high school credit, and only three mention postsecondary credit, but not in ways that explicitly require apprenticeships to result in academic credit. For example, Illinois’s definition requires that youth apprenticeships include two semesters of related instruction, but that related instruction only “ideally counts toward a high school and/or postsecondary credential.” On the other hand, seven of the 15 states we reviewed include industry credentials as a required outcome of youth apprenticeship.

Several factors contribute to this fragmentation of youth apprenticeship regulations. Some are historical. The Wisconsin state-registered youth apprenticeship system, for example, actually predates the national Registered Apprenticeship system. Design choices also affect some state definitions: Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky (TRACK) youth apprenticeship programs are intended to serve as pathways into federally Registered Apprenticeships, and so are not registered themselves. Still other reasons for fragmentation are territorial. In some states, apprenticeship agencies seem simply unwilling to engage with K–12 institutions, or to correct the persistent misconception that young people under age 18 cannot participate in Registered Apprenticeships.

Though frustrating, youth apprenticeship’s fragmented regulatory landscape is at least understandable. Youth apprenticeship partnerships are complex endeavors, requiring the participation of K–12 schools, higher education institutions, employers, government agencies, and often community organizations. Any educational program involving youth should be implemented with care and vigilance for young people’s safety, as well as for their educational outcomes and job prospects. But though youth apprenticeship’s history, complexity, and educational high stakes can explain its regulatory fragmentation, they do not justify it.

Incomplete definitions of youth apprenticeship at the state level hamstring partnerships that can create high-quality programs that empower youth, and which offer the greatest long-term promise for employers. At the national level, the inconsistency of youth apprenticeship definitions makes it difficult for larger businesses, unions, and employer groups—in traditional as well as nontraditional apprenticeship occupations—to efficiently start up programs. A clear, national definition of youth apprenticeship can provide common expectations for program design and quality standards so that all stakeholders understand what they are committing to, and what role they have to play.

The case for a national system of youth apprenticeship

For youth apprenticeship to become fully established and widely accepted as an educational pathway, all Americans need to know what it is. Further federal investment will also be necessary to build up the connective infrastructure of sectoral and regional youth apprenticeship intermediaries that support economies of scale. For either of those things to happen, we need a federal regulatory definition of youth apprenticeship.

The Registered Apprenticeship system is a national brand: its required skill standards and portable credential of completion mean learners know what they’re getting into and can take what they learn anywhere. Especially as the job market changes with technology and the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the portability of educational credit is too important to leave to the discretion of individual programs. By requiring that all youth apprenticeships culminate in credentials of value, college credit, or ideally both, federal lawmakers can demonstrate to parents and students that youth apprenticeship opens many college and career paths, rather than shunting students onto just one.

State regulatory efforts have provided valuable support to youth apprenticeship as it has grown across the country. But despite good intentions, the de facto parallel system of youth apprenticeship locks students in some states out of the pay and equal opportunity protections of the Registered Apprenticeship system. A federal definition of youth apprenticeship will not only eliminate these unintended disparities but will also make it easier for the federal government to target investments to youth apprenticeship programs and expand the model more quickly.

Last year’s Youth Apprenticeship Readiness Grants, though welcome, were impractical for applicants in some states where policies create barriers to enrolling youth in Registered Apprenticeships. And though the current draft of the Build Back Better Act allocates $1 billion over five years for Registered Apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships, it still does not provide a national definition. Like the Youth Apprenticeship Readiness Grants, the support is exciting, but the lack of a definition could impede implementation and accountability.

A national definition of youth apprenticeship would make it possible not only to count the youth who participate but also to evaluate the scalability and outcomes of the model. Federal dollars will go farther, and do more, once youth apprenticeship is clearly defined at the national level.

A regulatory definition for registered youth apprenticeship need not start from scratch. Certain state systems, such as Virginia’s, can serve as models for a system that is fully integrated with adult Registered Apprenticeship but which also accommodates high-schoolers’ schedules and fulfills their graduation requirements. Even better, the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, which passed the House in February but hasn’t been taken up by the Senate, defines both youth apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship, and sets aside program administration funds to support state agencies aligning apprenticeship programs with K–12 pathways and postsecondary credit.

Building on these foundations, a federal youth apprenticeship definition could go even farther by specifically allowing participation of out-of-school youth. Currently, prospective youth apprentices in states such as Minnesota may find themselves excluded from youth apprenticeship programs if they are not enrolled in a traditional K–12 school, and from Registered Apprenticeships because they lack a high school diploma or GED.

As American learners of all ages grapple with the high costs of college, and as employers face a tight labor market where workers are rightly demanding better-paid jobs with more advancement potential, the appeal of apprenticeship isn’t going anywhere. Neither is youth apprenticeship. With dozens of programs up and running, a national definition is a natural next step. A clear, quality-oriented, and equity-focused national definition would provide the support and flexibility states need to incorporate youth apprenticeship into their educational systems while ensuring that the model supports students and employers across the country.

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Apprenticeship Youth Apprenticeship