Apprenticeship is a powerful tool for training workers and meeting the skill needs of industries. But, centering equity in this nation’s apprenticeship system has been a long-standing challenge. At COWS, a national think-and-do tank based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’ve had the opportunity to follow innovators across the country who exemplify how to meet these challenges, push equity forward for workers, and help build a more just society.
After looking at programs that have been successful in making equity a focus, we found that three areas are key: program, people, and policy. When these are all aligned to extend skills to diverse, disadvantaged, and nontraditional workers, apprenticeship becomes a force for equity.
Successful apprenticeship programs build equity into all aspects of design, implementation, and improvement. They target jobs offering strong wages to workers at the apprentices and journey level, and at every step in between. These model programs also extend equity through apprenticeship by identifying, developing, and leveraging the strengths of diverse apprentices.
In the Care Navigator apprenticeship in Los Angeles, the very attributes that are commonly considered barriers to employment are recognized and utilized as real, tangible assets. The program has capitalized on apprentices’ knowledge of and legitimate connections in specific neighborhoods; fluency in languages other than English; and their lived experience of having, or caring for someone who has, a chronic condition or disability. These attributes, which often serve as barriers to employment and are so often viewed negatively, are instead packaged as strengths. Health care apprentices in Los Angeles develop their occupational skills on the foundation of their experiential knowledge with the wisdom and compassion needed to successfully work with patients facing trauma in the healthcare system.
Successfully equitable apprenticeship programs draw directly from people: the visionary leaders, managers and workers who use their own position to build and extend opportunity. These programs are designed to strengthen worker voices, meaningfully engage actors in solving problems, and extend power to new and different groups of people. Mentorship, lateral leadership, and connecting programs to engaged workers and their communities are all key practices that people play in pushing equity forward in apprenticeships.
In California’s South Bay, the Joint Workforce Initiative’s (JWI) story exemplifies how sharing power and collaboration across sectors drives equity forward. To best address the needs of bus operators, JWI agreed “to operate according to a worker-to-worker principle” and that “all curriculum would be developed by workers themselves under the guidance and support of the program developer.” This lateral leadership has resulted in a bespoke model that is highly adapted to the needs of new bus operators entering the field. The training offered through the program is as specific as the environment in which apprentices work.
Equity in apprenticeship flourishes when policy supports programs and people that carry out the work of equity. Public and private funders and policy makers that see equity as central to apprenticeship should consider context and support systems, people, and partnerships that have strong commitment to industry and worker needs. Funders, both private and public, should support programs that center their work on equity and build a leadership structure that shares power among all stakeholders.
Funders should also support the infrastructure that builds power for workers and elevates apprenticeships in the national conversation. Supporting partnerships between labor and management helps drive toward solutions, such as apprenticeships that improve job quality while meeting employers’ needs. Funders can also support research, convenings, and shared learning opportunities to continue to drive equity and innovation forward.
Centering equity in this nation’s apprenticeship system is a challenge, but innovators across the country exemplify for us every day how to meet this challenge. Their stories are instructive, and we hope that by highlighting their work, we will not only share the value of their practices, but also inspire practitioners, policy makers, and funders to find ways to do more for equity.
Tweet Successful apprenticeship programs build equity into all aspects of design, implementation, and improvement, including by identifying, developing, and leveraging the strengths of diverse apprentices.
COWS is a national think-and-do tank that promotes “high road” solutions to social problems based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This blog post includes examples from two of COWS’ four case studies, along with other from its latest report “Principles for Equity in Apprenticeship.” Their stories are inspiring and instructive. For the full-length versions, visit equityinapprenticeship.org. Please also join in on the broader conversation around equity and apprenticeship by using the hashtag #equityinapprenticeship on Twitter.
Keep in touch
Learn how the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program is helping low- and moderate-income Americans connect to and thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, and other announcements.