Commentary

New report: How to make youth apprenticeships work and boost NC’s economy

Youth apprenticeships are increasingly seen as a promising solution to a broken workforce development pipeline that too often fails to connect working people—especially young adults and people of color—to the training and the jobs they need. But to truly live up to their promise, apprenticeship programs for youth and young adults must be made more effective at reducing barriers to participation and completion, especially for students of color, according to a new report from the NC Justice Center.

Youth apprenticeships are paid, structured programs that prepare high school students, recent graduates, and young adults for a technical trade or occupation. They typically involve paid on-the-job training, related classroom-based instruction, a progressive pay scale with wages increasing each year as the apprentices learn, a national Journeyman certificate, and—in North Carolina—a free associate degree at a local community college.

To understand the barriers facing youth apprenticeship completion, the study examines a consortium of county-level, locally led apprenticeship programs belonging to the Eastern Triad Workforce Initiative (ETWI), located in central North Carolina—a national model for apprenticeships for youth and young adults. This regional collaborative includes individual apprenticeship programs in four counties—Alamance, Guilford, Randolph, and Rockingham.

The report finds 68 unique barriers present collectively across the entire ETWI relating to program design and interactions with parents, employers, high schools, and community colleges. This includes 32 barriers specifically hindering students of color. At the same time, however, the study finds program partners and employers aggressively adapted their strategies to address many of these barriers as they arose.

Specific findings include:

  • Improving completion outcomes for apprentices of color involves getting the pipeline right for everyone and removing the special barriers that affect apprentices of color in particular. This involves designing an apprenticeship pipeline with all the major components—high school recruitment, student participation in pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships with the same employer, opportunity to complete an associate degree at a local community college, and above all, local employer participation and leadership. Without these pieces, students will fall out of a broken apprenticeship pipeline.
  • Getting the pipeline right for apprentices of color means correcting for inequities in access to existing supports and systems. High school students of color may never enter the apprenticeship program due to parental skepticism of non-four-year degree options and historical exclusion from trades and manufacturing, or because of lack of intentional engagement and implicit biases among career counseling staff and employers keep these students from accessing these opportunities. Additionally, students from low-income families may face financial barriers to purchasing the equipment, transportation, and course materials they need to complete the program.
  • Community validators, including existing apprentices of color, are essential for addressing access issues during the recruitment stage of the apprenticeship pipeline. Many students of color may never see apprenticeship as something they could do if they never encounter employers or apprentices who look like them. Trusted voices in communities of color can bridge this divide, overcome parental skepticism, and help students of color realize apprenticeships are not just for white people.
  • Employer buy-in and adaptability is crucial to success. In North Carolina, ETWI employers have played a key role in creating, sustaining, and adapting to the needs of their apprentices. They have actively recruited apprentices and other employers, sought to increase the diversity of the students recruited, developed cash funds to support low-income students’ need for transportation and safety equipment, agreed to pay their apprentices for time spent in the classroom, and worked with individual apprentices when special needs arose. Their support has been critical to the program’s success.
  • Funding is necessary for addressing key barriers, supporting local partners and for expansion. Apprenticeship programs don’t start by themselves or run by themselves. Technical assistance provided by statewide apprenticeship agencies and community college systems is critical to any apprenticeship program. Youth apprenticeship programs require additional dedicated staff capacity at the local level in anchor organizations that can convene partners, engage schools and students and coordinate all the moving parts required to build a strong local pipeline to employers.
  • The apprenticeship tuition waiver is the linchpin of the program. Tuition costs associated with completion of post-secondary credentials are often a significant barrier for completion, especially for students of color who tend to come from lower income families. North Carolina’s tuition waiver allows apprentices to complete their degree for free—a huge boost to low-income students and a significant marketing advantage for student recruitment.

More details, including the full text of the report are available here.

Allan Freyer is Director of the Workers’ Rights at the NC Justice Center. He co-authored the report with Allison Forbes, Ph.D., Research Director with the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness and Pamela Howze Ed.D., Program Director for Work Based Learning at the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.

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