Allan M. Freyer, Ph.D., Principal Investigator
Director, Workers’ Rights, North Carolina Justice Center
Allison Forbes, Ph.D.
Research Director, Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness
Pamela Howze, Ed.D.
Program Director of Work-Based Learning, National Fund for Workforce Solutions

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Executive Summary

The importance of youth apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are increasingly seen as a solution to a broken workforce development pipeline that too often fails to connect working people to the training and the jobs they need to make ends meet. This is especially true for young adults—particularly young adults of color—who continue to suffer from significantly elevated unemployment despite a decade-long economic recovery. The national unemployment rate for youth and young adults (ages 16-24) is 8.6 percent, which is more than double the 3.8 percent jobless rate for all workers across the nation. At the same time, young adults of color face special barriers in connecting with the labor market—they are experiencing a 10.9 percent unemployment rate, in contrast to the 6.9 percent unemployment rate of their similarly-aged white peers.

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, and a national Journeyman certificate. In line with new youth apprenticeship guidelines promoted by the US Department of Labor, North Carolina’s youth apprenticeship programs include these components along with a an associate degree in a related occupation.

As states and communities increasingly experiment with youth apprenticeship, the partners involved in these efforts—employers, school systems, community colleges, workforce development boards, community-based organizations, and chambers of commerce—are grappling with the question of how to scale these programs and how to make them as effective as possible. What stands in the way of expanding these programs, and what limits young adults—especially young adults of color—in joining and completing these programs and finding long-term jobs with living wages?

Job training is often conceptualized as a pipeline that connects employers to potential employees with the technical or business skills they need to “do the job.” In the youth apprenticeship context, students enter this pipeline in or immediately after high school, participate in the program, and reach their end-goal—a permanent, full-time job.

As with traditional pipelines, blockages, barriers, and holes can stop students from entering and reaching this destination. As a result, it is crucial to design and administer the apprenticeship pipeline in a way that reduces barriers. This is especially important for supporting students of color, whose historically rooted disadvantages make it more difficult to overcome the barriers that affect all students and present special barriers unique to those communities.

The policy challenge: Identifying and overcoming the barriers to success

There are two different types of barriers that hold back student participation and completion in youth apprenticeship—program design barriers and functional barriers.

Barriers related to program design involve fundamental structural gaps in the apprenticeship pipeline that fail to keep young adults from pursuing and completing apprenticeships. Design-oriented problems tend to render the entire concept of a pipeline moot, as key stages or elements are completely missing. Properly designed, a youth apprenticeship pipeline includes the following stages:

  • Stage 1—Student exposure and recruitment, when students learn about career and technical education (CTE) and apprenticeships in their high schools, usually from career counseling staff. This stage is the entry point for apprenticeship, when students are recruited to apply (and some are not).
  • Stage 2—Student screening, where students must meet initial minimum standards, including GPA and attend employer meet-and-greets.
  • Stage 3—Student selection into pre-apprenticeship, where employers accept students into the program.
  • Stage 4—Student completion of pre-apprenticeship and full apprenticeship. The heart of the program experience, this stage involves students first completing a 10-12 week pre-apprenticeship during the summer to explore fits and interest in a technical field and employer before committing to the full, four-year apprenticeship. In both the pre- and full- apprenticeship, students work and receive on the job training and mentorship.
  • Stage 5—Student completion of community college degree program, where students attend community college classes to earn their associates degree in the technical field related to their apprenticeship.

Yet even when the pipeline is well designed, a range of functional barriers can hold back progress for students, and especially students of color. Functional barriers occur when students’ personal circumstances intersect with key actors in the pipeline in ways that keep them from entering and completing the apprenticeship program. In particular, a student’s interaction with four main actors shape the apprentice’s experience and generate barriers:

  • Parents, families, and social networks, which shape students’ career expectations, behavioral norms on the job, and, critically, financial conditions.
  • High Schools, which serve as the initial recruitment and entry point for the program and determine which students learn about and are recruited into apprenticeship.
  • Employers, who decide which apprentices are selected and how they are treated on the job.
  • Community Colleges, which provide the post-secondary credential required by the program and whose minimum acceptance standards may screen out otherwise qualified students.

In order for youth apprenticeship to live up to its promise, programs need to overcome design barriers and ensure students’ interactions with these actors help, rather than hinder their progress through the pipeline. In other words, program partners need to “get the pipeline right”—for everyone. This requires paying particular attention to ensuring the pipeline works for students of color, who, due to their historical experiences of exclusion, are more vulnerable to the barriers that affect everyone while also facing special barriers rooted in their history.

Learning from North Carolina to strengthen youth apprenticeships across the nation

To advance this policy goal, this study seeks to identify the specific barriers that hold back participation and completion in these programs, especially for students of color, and in turn, offer concrete recommendations and learnings for other communities across the United States seeking to improve the equity and effectiveness of their apprenticeship pipelines.

In this study, we look at one of these leading models in an effort to identify the design and functional barriers that hold back progress and make a series of recommendations to overcome them—specifically, the cluster of county-level, locally led apprenticeship programs belonging to the Eastern Triad Workforce Initiative in central North Carolina (ETWI).

This regional collaborative includes individual apprenticeship programs in four counties—Alamance, Guilford, Randolph, and Rockingham—each in a different stage of development and each meeting the U.S. Department of Labor standards for a high-quality, community-led, modern youth apprenticeship program. In these counties, all of the major USDOL-required partners are included—employers, community colleges, school systems—and their collaborative efforts have proven largely successful in recruiting and retaining growing numbers of employers and apprentices in a relatively short amount of time (see Chapter 3 for a more detailed overview of ETWI and the Triad region).

This study provides a composite view of the barriers facing student completion across all of the county-level programs in the entire initiative, along with a collective picture of the strategies these programs are using to address these barriers. The result is not a generalization across all the county programs (there are important differences noted in the narrative), but rather a global view of what has worked and what still needs to be addressed to ensure more equitable and successful apprenticeship programs across the region. In turn, this composite view is intended to benefit anyone in the United States seeking to develop or improve apprenticeship pipelines that are effective and racially equitable. Appendix A provides a detailed description of our study’s methodology.

Policy learnings

Using this composite view, we found three design barriers and 65 unique functional barriers present collectively across the entire ETWI, including 32 barriers specifically hindering students of color. At the same time, however, we found program partners and employers aggressively adapting their strategies to address many of these barriers as they arose. A chart summarizing these barriers by pipeline stage and interaction with key partners are included in Tables A-F immediately following this Executive Summary, and a detailed discussion of each barrier can be found in chapters 4-9.

ETWI programs have eliminated many design barriers found in other studies by bringing all the required partners to the table and aligning their efforts across all five stages of the pipeline. In addition, the individual program across ETWI have demonstrated significant willingness to develop innovative solutions and workarounds to the functional barriers apprentices encounter. There is constant, ongoing learning and adaptation, to the point where it should be considered a key feature in program design.

Yet several design-related challenges remain, including:

  1. Inconsistency in intentionally engaging students of color during the recruitment stage. High schools serve as the entry point to the pipeline, and the program’s effectiveness rests entirely on the ability of each school to recruit students to apply—and they are engaging students of color inconsistently.
  2. Need for greater representation among people of color with trusted voices in communities of color during the exposure and recruitment stages. Students and parents of color have a hard time seeing apprenticeship as something for them when they don’t see other people of color involved.
  3. Need to collect and combine data on student progress and participation. Currently three different agencies collect data on different aspects of apprentice progress through the program, but there is no central data collection effort designed to combine these sources into a single picture of progress. As a result, it is challenging to completely assess program performance and outcomes.

Apprentices encounter a range of functional barriers as they progress through the pipeline, although employers and program partners have developed a range of innovative solutions to address them. The most prominent of these barriers include the following, some of which are beyond the ability of program partners to influence: (see Tables B-F for more detail):

  1. Parents, families, and social networks. All students face barriers related to general parental skepticism of occupational careers and preference for four-year college. This Is especially prevalent among families of color, who often view college the only pathway out of poverty. In addition, students of color may lack social networks that include people with manufacturing, trades, or apprenticeship backgrounds, making it harder to identify these careers as possibilities. Lastly, families may lack sufficient income to afford transportation for themselves and their children to attend open houses, or parents may need be unable to attend because they work multiple job.
  2. High Schools. Students face barriers during recruitment if they are not exposed early enough, or if high schools exclude some students due to implicit bias. Many students of color may never see apprenticeship as something they can do if they never encounter any employers, apprentices, or career counselors who look like them (the representation-recruitment challenge). Additionally, marketing materials may be insufficiently detailed or racially diverse to provide students with the information they need to make an informed decision about apprenticeship. Partners have adapted by engaging more directly with career counselors and improving their marketing materials and outreach, including the use of robocalls to student households.
  3. Employers. Participating employers in the region are almost exclusively white, which creates a representation challenge for students of color looking to see that apprenticeship could be for them. Additionally, employers are more likely to hire students as pre-apprentices who look and behave like them, which disadvantages students of color who have different behavioral norms. Similarly, employers care deeply about soft skills, which are often subjectively interpreted. Participating employers are seeking to address this challenge by educating new employers about the importance of accepting students of color. Also, many students face financial barriers around transportation and work materials (e.g., safety goggles, steel-toed boots). Employers are seeking to address these financial barriers by paying for these work materials out of their own pockets. Lastly, immigrant students are facing barriers to participation around lack of work authorization, documentation, and fears over family deportation.
  4. Community Colleges. Every apprentice must meet basic community college admission standards, which relies heavily on Grade Point Averages. Given that GPAs often reflect implicit biases, these standards may screen out otherwise qualified students of color. Additionally, apprentices with GPAs lower than 2.8 are require to take remedial classes—this adds to apprentices’ course loads, forces them to take detours off their occupational track, and splits up the apprentice cohorts that have proven so valuable in supporting student progress. Additionally, course scheduling misalignments with high schools has created scheduling issues that hold back students.

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

This report covers a lot of ground, so we have summarized the main takeaways and policy recommendations here (for more detail, see Chapter 10). Although these recommendations are primarily intended for a national audience, Appendix B provides a shorter set of targeted program suggestions specifically for partners in the Triad. We hope study benefits both audiences.

  1. The North Carolina youth apprenticeship model is not just about youth. It is really a training pipeline for young adults that is deeply intertwined with the adult workforce system. Thanks largely to federal funding categories, workforce professionals tend to separate youth training (including apprenticeship) from adult systems. North Carolina’s model bridges this divide. Although many of the participants in the ETWI started in high school, a majority did not enter the program until the year after their graduation. And even for those apprentices who entered the program during 11th or 12th grades, the program lasts for four years, carrying these apprentices well into early adulthood. Moreover, the requirement that all apprentices complete an associate degree in their occupational field brings these apprentices directly into the heart of the adult workforce system—the community college—a connection reinforced by a tuition waiver that allows students to graduate debt-free.
  2. 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. As we’ve seen, there are dozens of barriers involving parents, high schools, employers, and community colleges that can hold back completion for all apprentices in the pipeline. Removing these barriers is critical for ensuring the program succeeds for everyone. It is also especially important for students of color, as historical patterns of discrimination and economic disparities make these students even more vulnerable to these barriers than their white counterparts. Moreover, apprentices of color face many barriers that exist specifically because of their identities as people of color and the institutionalized racism that many of them experience.
  3. Getting the pipeline right for apprentices of color means correcting for inequities in access to existing supports and systems. Many potential apprentices of color may never enter the program because of barriers related to unequal access. 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. If accepted, they may not complete because they cannot afford tools, transportation, or safety equipment. Without a tuition waiver, the employer’s costs would go up, potentially reducing the number of positions available. Apprenticeship pipelines should correct for these access-related barriers.
  4. Community validators, including existing apprentices of color, are essential for addressing access issues during the recruitment stage of the apprenticeship pipeline. In order for students and parents of color to see apprenticeship as something that works for them—especially in schools with significant wealth divides—it is essential to provide them with trusted voices from their own communities who can vouch for the program. This can include grass-roots leaders of color—employers, pastors, and community advocates—and current apprentices of color who can speak about the benefits of the program. Taken together, these trusted voices can work with students and their parents to overcome skepticism and see apprenticeship as a viable alternative to a traditional four-year degree.
  5. 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 aligning the employer end of the pipeline with student recruitment, community college attainment, and the needs of their apprentices.
  6. 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. Without the $3.2 million state appropriation, it is doubtful that ETWI county programs would have been as successful. State governments and philanthropic partners should provide full financial support to local anchor organizations, including local school systems supporting these programs, rather than relying solely on regional or statewide technical assistance to support programs.
  7. 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.