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Apprenticeships in early childhood education build a skilled workforce, but where’s the pay?

In California and nationwide, stubbornly low pay in early childhood education makes it almost impossible for workers to train their way to a sustainable living.

This article was produced by and originally ran in LAist, as part of a series on apprenticeships.

Los Angeles — Think apprenticeship and you might imagine construction workers, electricians or maybe even a chef, but likely not a child care provider.

“Ignore us at your own peril,” warned Randi Wolfe. “Because if you don’t have child care … in your community, how do you think these electricians are going to go to work? How do you think these advanced manufacturers are going to go to work?”

Wolfe runs Early Care and Education Pathways to Success, a nonprofit that coordinates apprenticeship programs throughout California.

The big idea: What started as one program helping Los Angeles early educators earn their teacher permits — and as a result higher wages—in 2016 has grown into four distinct apprenticeships with about a dozen cohorts spread throughout the state with more on the way.

“It’s not just about getting more college credit. It’s not just about getting a raise, it’s not just about advancing from one position to another,” Wolfe said. “It pulls it all together … in one nice package.”

But pay is stubbornly low even for well-qualified early educators. The median wage for child care workers in California is $13.43 an hour. Preschool teachers make about $16.83 an hour, according to UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

“In many fields, you can expect to earn significantly higher wages as you meet significant milestones like degrees,” said the center’s research director Abby Copeman Petig. “That’s not always the case, with early education.”

Wolfe said the wages have sometimes made the apprenticeships a tough pitch to would-be supporters.

“I would love nothing more than to know that there is no early childhood person in this state who earns less than $17 an hour,” Wolfe said she told a potential funder recently. “But rather than closing the door on us, how about standing side by side, and going into collaboration and coalition with us?”

Apprenticeships are not the end goal, she said, but rather a vehicle to improve compensation and working conditions for early educators.

‘We Don’t Lower The Standards’

The details: More than 350 people completed SEIU Early Educator Apprenticeships between 2016 and 2019. The program was a collaboration between unions, community-based organizations and community colleges.

Center and home-based participants received stipends for finishing college coursework, free textbooks and computers and additional support from a success coordinator to earn teaching credentials, raises and promotions.

“We don’t lower the standards,” Wolfe said. “We don’t lower our expectations, but we set up a program that’s going to meet the needs of first-generation college students, of working full-time mothers.”

One marker of success? Wolfe said the program’s attrition rate was low, just 11 percent.

Carmen Del Alamo, an alum of the SEIU Early Childhood Education Apprenticeships program, stands in her front yard, where children can practice their gross motor skills. (Mariana Dale/Courtesy of LAist)

On the ground: Granada Hills family child care provider Carmen Del Alamo is an alumni of the program. She was a nurse in Peru before moving to Los Angeles and opening her child care more than 10 years ago. She wanted to go back to college sooner, but the daytime classes didn’t fit her schedule nor could she really afford them.

(Mariana Dale/Courtesy of LAist)

A quick tour of her home showed how she put child development classes into action. There are areas for science, math and music and another where toddlers can practice fine motor skills like zipping zippers and buttoning buttons and closing latches.

Del Alamo says the kids’ emotions are central to her program. A crying child warrants more than “Shhhh” and “Please, be quiet.”

“They’re crying for something,” Del Alamo said. “You need to validate their feelings. It’s really important.”

She earned her teacher permit in 2019 and aspires to complete a bachelor’s degree and open a standalone child care center one day.

“I [am] really — como se dice agradecida … grateful,” Del Alamo said.

An Opportunity For Teenagers

The pandemic highlighted the connection between child care availability and whether families can work. Research shows child care employment in L.A. is still 10 percent lower than before the pandemic.

“It’s not clear that people are coming back, which means you have to start from scratch,” Wolfe said.

The need is particularly acute in Lancaster, an area considered a child care desert because of how many young kids there are compared to the availability of care.

One of the newest apprenticeship programs aims to bring high desert teenagers into the early educator pipeline. The youth apprenticeship enrolls high school juniors in free college credit earning courses at Antelope Valley College and pairs them with summer jobs in early childhood. The end goal is an associate’s degree, a child development credential and paid on-the-job training.

The majority of students, 89 percent, at the area’s largest public high school district identify as Black, Asian, Latino, American Indian or multiple races and the college’s administrators said many are prospective first-generation college students.

“Having free college education for many families is a game changer,” said Jill Zimmerman, the college’s dean of student life. “Students need to have early career paths.”

Gut check: Youth apprenticeship programs seek to meet the needs of two different communities — families seeking high-quality child care, and teenagers.

“While early childhood needs pipelines of well trained educators, at the same time, high school age youth need good pathways to careers,” said Cara Sklar, deputy director for early and elementary education policy at the think tank New America.

Sklar evaluated the beginnings of a similar youth apprenticeship in Oakland before the pandemic and found promise, but also potential pitfalls.

“It’s important to acknowledge concerns about the equity implications of creating career pathways for high school students, particularly young women of color from families with low incomes and also immigrant youth, to work in the undervalued and low-paying field of early ed,” Sklar said.

But proponents of the youth apprenticeship said students will have a head start on advancing to higher paying jobs in administration or related fields like social work or counseling.

“Any academic field, and any career training that they get, really is adding to the opportunities that they’ll have in the future,” said Antelope Valley College’s Director of Student Activities and Community Outreach Kenya Johnson.

Early Childhood Apprenticeships Are Growing

The average pay for a California child care worker is $13.43 an hour. (Jackie Jackson/Courtesy of LAist)

Looking ahead: California is in the midst of trying to grow the overall number of apprentices statewide from fewer than 100,000 to 500,000 in a decade.

Early Care and Education Pathways to Success now helps coordinate registered apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs in 10 California counties. Wolfe said there are new projects developing in L.A. County, San Diego, San Mateo, Monterey and Santa Clara Counties and she expects there will be 300 to 500 active participants by the end of 2022.

The organization’s largest source of financial support is philanthropy, but new sources of funding could be on the way.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors designated $9 million of federal American Rescue Plan funding to expand apprenticeships in a variety of sectors, including early childhood.

“I don’t think any of us have the final solution to, the final answer to be able to address these issues,” said Jose Perez, an assistant director at the county’s Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services Department. “But we have the opportunity to show, in a sense, proof of concept on what is possible, models that might inform future decisions.”

Another source of funding for apprenticeship programs could be the $40 million set aside for professional development in the first Child Care Providers United contract with the state.

“There’s a way for us to bring everybody together to have conversations and maximize what currently exists, expand and make it more accessible to everyone,” said Nanette Rincon-Ksido, external organizing director at SEIU Local 99, one of the union’s founding organizations.

Parting thought: Apprenticeship programs can cultivate a highly trained workforce ready to care for kids and families. What’s less clear is when early educators will be paid wages that reflect those qualifications.

“Families cannot pay more and then providers cannot pay their teachers more,” said New America’s Sklar. “So until new federal, state, local dollars come in, until new public dollars come in, we are stuck with low compensation — but we don’t have to be.”

Mariana Dale is the early childhood reporter at LAist.

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