Contributors: Anuradha Dhar, Allison Forbes
Apprenticeships are a promising solution to employer-reported “skills shortages” and an effective way to connect young adults to in-demand skills and jobs. But to live up to their promise, apprenticeship programs for young adults must more effectively reduce barriers to participation and completion, especially for students of color, according to a new report from the North Carolina Justice Center.
In the U.S., 10.9 percent of young adults of color (ages 16 to 25) are seeking work but unemployed, two percentage points more than the national average for this age group and four percent higher than their white peers (see the chart below). With unemployment at a sustained low nationwide, and employers clamoring for talent, these numbers reflect a disconnect between young adults of color and employers.
A typical apprenticeship program is sponsored by an employer, creating a direct link between training and employment. The North Carolina Justice Center report finds that even when youth apprenticeship programs are well designed, with employers engaged as program sponsors, paying wages and college tuition, a range of barriers can stop students of color from accessing, entering and completing these high-quality apprenticeship programs. The study specifically looked at county-level, locally led apprenticeship programs belonging to the Eastern Triad Workforce Initiative in central North Carolina.
Exposure and recruitment
Lack of early exposure can mean some students never hear about apprenticeship programs or have a chance to apply. Even when students hear about a program, they may decide the program is not for them because they don’t see anyone who looks like them. Career counseling staff, classroom instructors and other trusted advisors must be informed about these programs and encourage students of color to apply.
Parental skepticism is another barrier. Apprenticeships leading to technical, middle-skill jobs are often not recognized as a pathway to financial stability. The report notes that “many parents and their social networks see four-year college or joining the military as the only pathway out of poverty into middle class stability because it was the only path available to them.”
“Without an intentional effort to engage students of color they may never hear about apprenticeship because they were never informed, they may never apply because they were never recruited, and they were never recruited because they lacked a personal connection with a mentor or trusted teacher.”
– North Carolina Justice Center report
To introduce students and their parents to the apprenticeship program, employers may host meet-and-greet events with students and parents at the work site. But some students and parents cannot attend due to lack of transportation, employment and family obligations. These challenges may be particularly acute for students of color due to historical wealth gaps.
Students are also subject to explicit screening criteria that may screen out otherwise qualified students of color. Stringent standards may not capture students’ full abilities and may shrink the talent pool over time. Additionally, GPAs may reflect deeper socioeconomic disparities and biases faced by students of color in schools. Other reports on youth apprenticeship, such as this one from New America, have raised similar concerns about minimum GPA and attendance requirements.
Pre-apprenticeships, full apprenticeships, and community college degree completion
Once selected for a program, apprentices must navigate workplace practices and balance family responsibilities. Students who contribute to family income may work multiple jobs and lack funds to buy appropriate materials for the job, and students of color are more likely to face these financial barriers. Additionally, students of color entering a majority white work environment may need help adapting to a new culture of work. Interpreting behavior at the workplace is particularly important to students of color, a finding also reported by the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Report.
Proactively connecting apprentices to mentors, financial supports and “wrap-around” support services (such as childcare or transportation) would help ensure that students of color from low-income families complete their programs to secure employment with their sponsoring company. It is worth noting that, in North Carolina, a state-sponsored tuition waiver is key to ensuring the affordability of youth apprenticeship programs. North Carolina’s tuition waiver allows apprentices to complete their degree for free, helping attract and retain students.