Apprenticeships Spur Economic Mobility: Diversity and Working Learners

Diversity was a major topic of discussion last week at the first-ever international Apprenticeship Forward! conference in Washington, D.C., cohosted by the National Skills Coalition and New America. Companies, industry groups, and unions are reaching out to people traditionally underrepresented in their fields, including minorities, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities. Many apprenticeship programs have found that reaching out to low-income students who may not see an economic path to a traditional four-year college increases their diversity while allowing programs to recruit talented employees who may otherwise be un- or underemployed.

Registered apprentices, a prime example of working learners, take classes in their field while learning on the job, allowing them to directly put their lessons from the classroom into practice. When they graduate from their educational program (often an AS or AA degree), they are very likely to have not only a job waiting for them with their apprenticeship employer, but an entire middle-class career. Apprentices also earn wages for their work and typically have their education paid for by their employer and/or the government. This means that they often do not need to incur student debt but still reap the benefits of a postsecondary education, along with valuable work experience.

Industry members from fields as varied as finance (where the stereotypical employee was described, tongue-in-cheek, as “pale, male, and stale” by one representative) and pipefitting described their efforts to train and employ a more diverse workforce. One representative from a financial services agency pointed out that though his company has a variety of different diversity initiatives, the apprenticeship program is one of the most meaningful. Specifically searching for a wide range of apprentices almost guarantees more diversity in the incoming workforce, and increased diversity in entry-level jobs will lead to more diverse middle management in the future, as these employees are promoted. As presenters emphasized, many prospective employees do not realize that apprenticeships, with their emphasis on learning while working, often lead to well-paying careers spanning decades, not simply a “job”.

Recently updated federal regulations add sexual orientation, disability status, genetic information, and age to the previously protected classes of gender, national origin, race, color, and religion in apprenticeship programs. But while these regulations are vital, they only forbid outright discrimination with regard to a program’s applicants. Conference participants were outspoken in their belief that going further, by actively recruiting and valuing diverse apprentices, is beneficial to both their company cultures and their bottom lines.