Despite an increase in the number of youth apprentices over the past decade, disparities remain in who’s accessing the programs.
A recent report from the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, which supports high-quality pathways from secondary education to work, found that between 2010 and 2020, the number of new youth apprentices (people ages 16-24) per year grew from 18,877 to 40,293, representing a 113 percent increase, compared to a 70 percent increase in the number of apprentices of all ages.
But the progress in the number of available apprenticeships—programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor that give participants paid, on-the-job training that often lead directly to a job upon completion—is overshadowed by sustained disparities among participants and their outcomes including wages the Jobs of the Future report says.
Over the past decade, 63 percent of youth apprentices identified as white. Black and Hispanic youth were less likely than their white peers to participate in apprenticeship programs, and, when they did participate, they exited with generally lower hourly wages, the report said. Women accounted for only 7 percent of all youth apprentices.
Lisette Nieves, a professor of administration, leadership, and technology at New York University who has researched and written about youth apprenticeships, talked with Education Week about these disparities, and how districts can support and improve youth apprenticeship pipelines.
What are youth apprenticeships, and how do they differ from internships?
Youth apprenticeships combine classroom instruction with paid work experience through a specialized program. Through apprenticeship programs, students can obtain professional certification in industries like health care, manufacturing, and information technology. Youth internships are often unpaid and don’t lead to certifications, while apprenticeships are more successful in transitioning students directly from school to work, Nieves said.
Apprenticeships can span multiple years and have a structured training plan with clear objectives, while internships are more short-term and don’t need to have measurable outcomes.
What are schools’ roles in supporting apprenticeship programs?
Because youth apprenticeships are usually done while students continue their class work, schools have to work closely with employers to develop programs that are useful and workable for everyone, Nieves said.
To create a useful program, it’s important that district leaders and apprenticeship program leaders work together to outline their expectations about objectives and how to reach them. Scheduling is easier if everyone is “breaking down silos” that can exist between education and career institutions, Nieves said. Sometimes, students in apprenticeship programs need modified schedules to accommodate their working hours, are dual-enrolled with a college that offers a more specific course, or can be enrolled in a district’s career academy.
What can districts do to offset the disparities that exist and expand access, particularly to STEM opportunities?
Encouraging students, particularly girls and underrepresented groups, to test out STEM and career programs early on can spark an interest they were unaware of before, Nieves said.
Districts should be intentional about inviting and encouraging a diverse group of students from different backgrounds to participate so “we’re not structurally setting up a system, or reproducing an existing system that only recognizes certain apprenticeships for very privileged students,” Nieves said.
She added that districts should make sure somebody on staff knows what opportunities are available, serves as a liaison between employers, and shares information on the opportunities with all students and families.
“There needs to be intentionality about who’s participating and why they’re participating because we have a history of steering students to different paths that has not been equitable,” she said.
With everything else going on, why should districts care about youth apprenticeships?
Apprenticeship programs can help future workers get training and experience that helps them earn higher wages, Nieves said.
According to the Jobs for the Future report, the average exit wage for youth apprentices of all genders and races was $31, compared to about $12 for all other youth. The differences were most pronounced for Black and Hispanic youth. For Black youth who participated in an apprenticeship program, the average hourly wage was $23, compared to $12.06 for those who did not. For Hispanic youth, those who completed apprenticeship programs earned about $32 per hour, compared to $12.29 for those who didn’t participate.
But for some students, the benefits are more immediate, Nieves said.
For some, hands-on and more-engaging opportunities are what keep them engaged with school at all. So, apprenticeship programs can help keep their interest and give them something to look forward to, while also setting them up for success in their future careers.
“My fear is that, in the conversations about learning loss, muting what I think was progress in recent years in opening up a conversation around project-based learning and apprenticeships,” Nieves said. “So, how do we think about a formal way of doing hands-on training that can be considered an incentive and motivation to continue to be persistent in school? I think this is one way.”
How can districts work to dispel lingering stigma that career-technical education pathways are only for students who struggle in school?
For years, the measure of students’ success was whether they went to college after high school graduation. There was a national push for “college for all” that has shifted in recent years to preparing students for college or careers, recognizing that postsecondary education directly after high school isn’t the best fit for everyone.
In the past, there was a stigma that career-based programs were best for students who did not perform well academically.
As the mindset shifts, schools should double down on messaging that explains to both students and their families that career programs are available and their potential benefits.
“What we need to do is really accept that apprenticeships make a closer link between young people and how they’re thinking about future choices by providing students with hands-on opportunities that can incentivize and spark and inspire choices,” Nieves said.