Youth apprentices doubled in the past decade—but rewards were uneven

Women and girls still dramatically lag in participation, and both women and Black youth get less of a wage boost.

The number of youth apprentices in the United States more than doubled in the past decade—but racial and gender gaps barely moved, despite efforts to bring more women and people of color into the programs.

The pandemic also cut deeply into gains made earlier in the decade, according to an analysis of federal data released by JFF today.

“It was great to see that the numbers were increasing, but what was disappointing was to see that some of the disparities we see in the current system are being replicated,” in youth apprenticeships, said Myriam Sullivan, director at JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning and lead author of the new report.

  • Between 2010 and 2020, the number of youth apprentices, aged 16 to 24, grew 113 percent from almost 18,900 to 40,300.
  • They hit a high watermark of 55,700 in 2019, but the pandemic then ravaged participation.

Though outside the scope of the current study, Sullivan suspects that some of the pandemic losses have already been recovered. Across all apprenticeships—for both youths and adults—the number of new apprentices grew 9 percent last year.

Race and gender at the fore

Over the past decade, the youth apprenticeship system has made small gains in narrowing participation gaps by race and gender, but outcomes are still dramatically uneven.

  • Women and girls grew from 5 percent of apprentices to 10 percent, and Latino participation rates increased as well. But Black rates did not.
  • Hourly wages after completing apprenticeships were comparable for white youth ($30) and Latino ones ($32), but Black youth continued to lag behind ($23).

Gender gaps were particularly striking. Men more than doubled their wages by completing apprenticeships, but women didn’t come close to that—in part because women and girls disproportionately entered fields like pharmacy tech and early childhood education that pay much less than male-dominated fields like construction.

Top occupations for aggregate totals of male and female youth apprentices in fiscal years 2010 to 2020. Source: “The Current State of Diversity and Equity in U.S. Apprenticeships For Young People,” Figure 7, JFF.
  • Men’s wages on average were $31 after completing an apprenticeship, compared to just over $13 an hour for male youth overall.
  • Women’s wages were $18 an hour after completion, compared to just under $13 an hour for all female youth.

A lot of factors contribute to these disparities, from historical practices to current program design to marketing, Sullivan said. (Alongside the new study, JFF released a framework for better designing apprenticeships for diversity and equity.) Sullivan stressed that more focused awareness campaigns will be critical to chipping away at the gaps.

“Are we sharing information about opportunities in the right mediums?,” she said. “For women and girls, they need to see examples of what that looks like. You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s a communications issue.”

Work underway

Sullivan cautioned, however, that the analysis doesn’t capture the impact of efforts begun in the past two years or that were newly underway when the pandemic hit. The Department of Labor began investing more heavily in apprenticeships in 2015, with a particular focus on youth and young adults in communities that have typically been locked out of apprenticeship opportunities.

That increased focus on apprenticeships largely continued through the Trump administration, and has ramped up under Biden. Business and philanthropic investments have increased as well. 

  • In 2018, for example, New America launched the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship, a major grant initiative to help cities and states expand access to high-quality apprenticeship opportunities for high schoolers.
  • In the past few months, the Labor Department has invested $171 million in modernizing and expanding apprenticeship systems across the country. That came on top of $130 million last year.
  • And earlier this month, the Biden administration launched a new initiative in which 200 employers and other organizations signed on to create almost 500 new apprenticeship programs in the next year.

“There are a number of efforts at play currently,” Sullivan said. “That holds promise to me because I can see a number of organizations and school systems working on youth apprenticeships.”

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