A substantial body of research has documented the extent to which COVID-19 exacerbated inequality. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau documents that the Gini coefficient – the most commonly used measure of income inequality, in which a larger coefficient represents less equal income distributions – increased by 1.2 percentage points between 2020 and 2021. This was the first time the coefficient has increased since 2011, demonstrating the deepening gulf between the top and bottom of the income distribution. Given these inequities, as well as the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on marginalized and economically disempowered communities, policymakers have been eager to uncover ways of alleviating or shrinking the income gap. The ballooning cost of college tuition has made postsecondary education an increasingly untenable path, because of prohibitively high upfront costs, decreased value associated with four-year degrees and the economic burden of student loans.
One solution that has been increasingly considered is the provision of apprenticeship programs, through which individuals can develop occupational skills and gain real-world experience and education relevant to a viable career path. Apprenticeships can thus offer a route to living wage jobs and become a vehicle for economic mobility, providing career pathways to those who need them in an efficient manner. What is more, these programs have been successfully applied in a diverse set of industries that includes software development, construction and trucking.
However, apprenticeship programs have not historically been successful in reaching a diverse array of people. A recent report from NCGrowth discusses the issue of diversity in apprenticeship programs, noting participants of such programs were overwhelmingly white and male. Given that women and minority groups are frequently among the least economically empowered, the ability of apprenticeship programs to reduce inequality likely depends on whether these programs can reach underrepresented communities. Through a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches, the NCGrowth report examines diversity trends within apprenticeship and offers a set of best practices to continue diversifying these programs.
An extensive survey conducted by the Center for Apprenticeship and Job-Based Learning documented this problem of representation. The survey ran from 2010 to 2019 and encompassed 686,000 apprentices, finding that apprenticeship participants were more than 75% white and more than 90% male. To exacerbate the problem of participation rates, a quarter of Black participants completed their apprenticeship while incarcerated – suggesting that gaps for those outside prison may be even wider than the survey indicates. Finally, women constituted only 12% of all apprentices during that time.
Aside from these inequalities in participation, NCGrowth’s report documents other disparities and barriers present within apprenticeship programs. Black apprentices earn far less than participants of other races, receiving as much as $12 less per hour than their white counterparts. White apprentices also reported higher completion rates and higher rates of participation as a sponsoring business.
To diversify the apprenticeship system in the U.S., NCGrowth’s report includes a list of best practices that was developed after extensive research into the top apprenticeship providers. These best practices include:
The report concludes with other recommendations, largely targeted at policymakers tasked with overseeing or implementing these programs. Above all, it stresses the need for constant support of trainees throughout the apprenticeship by expanding the financial, emotional and other resources available (e.g., child care). In addition, the report recommends that providers use a cohort model, so that incoming apprentices feel connected to a broader group as they undertake the process. Apprentices within cohorts can help their peers, thus expanding the broader support network offered by the program.
The report also recommends that staff and program providers focus on retention. Since the primary reason why an apprentice doesn’t complete a given program is scheduling conflicts, NCGrowth emphasizes the need to tailor apprenticeship programs to be flexible. A related recommendation from the report is that data collection be as standardized as possible, so that providers can examine any particular demographics that aren’t being reached.
Another recommendation is that the programs themselves be aligned with expanding industries. The evolving nature of labor markets and in-demand jobs necessitates constant evaluation of which skills are going to lead to sustainable careers. Lastly, the report highly recommends expanding the diversity of providers, who may be impeded by burdensome registration requirements when seeking federal funds for such programs.
Ultimately, increasing the diversity of apprenticeship programs starts with providing a more robust, less burdensome ecosystem for trainees. When individuals feel supported and empowered to engage fully in apprenticeship programs, it can lead to genuine class mobility – research has demonstrated the power of programs that are properly instituted. Without examining the particulars of these programs, however, their potential for economic transformation will remain unrealized.
Kenan Institute Technical Business Writer Thomas Nath wrote this insight.