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Seizing the moment to address equity gaps in apprenticeships

Apprenticeships can help more Americans get on a path to economic security, write Cameron Johnson and Emily Andrews of CLASP. But to do so, the programs have to be designed for equity.
Photo by CarlosBarquero via Shutterstock
Cameron Johnson

The economy was a key theme during the midterm elections. In repeated exit polls, voters identified inflation as their top issue, one of many signs that workers are struggling to make ends meet amidst rapidly rising prices. With inflation outpacing wages, workers—particularly those who earn low wages, those from communities of color, and women—need all the support our nation can muster. Apprenticeships are a key strategy for putting them on a career path toward economic security.

This year’s National Apprenticeship Week (November 14-20) comes at a significant moment for registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships—with a window to align major new investments in the system with equity goals for workers, families, and our economy. The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in late 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) just a few months ago signals an influx of resources to provide quality paid on-the-job training and related instruction in infrastructure and clean energy jobs.

While these bills can strengthen and grow registered apprenticeships, we must address the troubling disparities in access and participation. Closing these gaps and advancing equity will require apprenticeship sponsors, policymakers, and relevant stakeholders to update programs and enact necessary policies.

Emily Andrews

Women are woefully underrepresented in registered apprenticeships. In 2021, just 13.4% of apprentices were women. When women do participate, they are disproportionately represented in apprenticeships with lower wages like in the child care sector where the national median hourly wage in 2021 was $13.22. By comparison, men who exit an apprenticeship make on average more than twice as much as women.

These gaps are just as stark along racial lines. In 2021, Black Americans comprised 7.6% of apprentices—despite making up 13% of the labor force overall. Notably, some 25% of all Black apprentices have historically completed their program during incarceration. Beyond reflecting the pervasive issue of mass incarceration throughout the Black population, these data indicate that apprenticeship programs present structural barriers to Black participants. 

Given these disparities, apprenticeship program planners must design registered apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, and youth apprenticeship programs with certain principles in mind. In addition to being high quality, these programs must center equity for workers of color, immigrants, young people, women, workers earning low wages, and workers with involvement in the criminal legal system. CLASP recommends the following broad principles, which, coupled with recommendations from the federal Advisory Committee on Apprenticeships, serve that equity aim.

Prioritize program goals that promote equity. In addition to training participants for high-demand jobs, programs can intentionally advance equitable opportunities and outcomes. Equity goals should include detailed plans on complying with federal regulations requiring registered apprenticeships to affirmatively promote equity, combat discrimination, and address barriers to equal opportunities. In addition, because apprenticeships are covered under Title VII, people who are discriminated against can seek redress by pursuing a federal agency complaint or filing a lawsuit.

Promoting equitable access, recruitment, and placement. Programs can support equity and access by targeting communities with the least access to quality training or employment and developing recruitment materials in multiple languages. Eligibility policies shouldn’t limit enrollment based on pre-enrollment drug testing; history with the criminal legal system; documentation or citizenship status; child support debt; or credit history. Programs should comply with state and local laws that provide additional protections, such as local ban-the-box ordinances. Program designers should avoid funneling youth and adults with low incomes, especially those of color, into lower-performing or poorly funded pathways. Instead, participants should have access to established registered apprenticeships. Programs should also offer wraparound services such as child care; transportation; physical and mental health care; equipment; and other basic needs.

Ensuring fair compensation. All participants must earn adequate compensation. This is especially true for pre-apprenticeships, which prepare participants to enter and succeed in registered apprenticeships. As very few people can afford weeks or months of training without income to support themselves and their families, pre-apprenticeship programs must pay wages. Additionally, the apprenticeship community must rally around apprentices who are incarcerated. Allies can advocate to pay incarcerated apprentices at least the minimum wage.

Congress can further build equity into the system by reauthorizing the National Apprenticeship Act. This will increase participation and success in communities that have been previously excluded or underrepresented in registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships. Congress must also follow up the IRA with legislation to fund workforce development programs, including registered apprenticeships.

National Apprenticeship Week, following on the heels of the midterm elections, marks an opportunity to acknowledge the value of registered apprenticeship programs, the need for continued federal investments, and concrete steps that policymakers and apprenticeship sponsors can take to ensure this proven workforce strategy delivers on equity and inclusion goals.

Emily Andrews is the director of the education, labor & worker justice team at the Center for Law and Social Policy, (CLASP). Cameron Johnsonwho now works at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-authored this while he was a research assistant at CLASP. 

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