Revisiting Youth Apprenticeships

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George Knowles, Digital Communications Associate

For youth who are struggling to find employment, the job market can seem like a bleak place. As of July 2015, the youth unemployment rate was 12.2 percent, which is more than double the general unemployment rate of 5 percent. Although the job market is improving overall, youth unemployment is still a pressing concern, and finding a good job after graduating high school is not a given.

“Many youth don’t even think about getting good jobs,” said Jeff Madrick, Director of the Century Foundation’s Rediscovering Government project at a recent Capitol Hill briefing. The foundation’s recent report by Clio Chang explains how robust investment in apprenticeship programs can help lower the rates of youth unemployment. According to the report, apprenticeships have a positive impact on participant future earnings, require less government funding than community or technical colleges, and can benefit employers by reducing employee turnover rates.

Maalik Groves, an IT apprentice from Philadelphia who spoke at the event, felt fortunate that he had found a quality apprenticeship program. “I could have been part of this statistic,” said Groves, referring to high rates of unemployed youth. Groves, an apprentice at the Urban Technology Project (UTP), began a pre-apprenticeship program shortly after earning his degree from an alternative education public school in Philadelphia, and after six months, was hired as a full-time apprentice. After starting his apprenticeship, “I’ve been maturing personally and professionally every day,” said Groves. His future plans include focusing on the security aspects of technology, and aims to earn at least three professional certifications while continuing his work at UTP.

Overcoming Stigma

“The biggest problem apprenticeships have right now is perception,” said Eric Seleznow, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Employment and Training Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. Apprenticeships programs often have a certain stigma attached to them, and are sometimes associated with the idea that they track struggling students into low-skill, vocational career paths. With a national attitude toward education that strongly emphasizes postsecondary preparation and success, there is less room or appetite for what can seem like an old-fashioned approach to connecting youth to sustainable jobs with a long-term career trajectory.

The reality is that apprenticeships do connect youth to quality jobs and provide access to both on-the-job training and coursework at technical colleges. According to the report, which cites a Mathematica Policy Research source, the average earnings gain associated with a completed apprenticeship was over $14, 000 in the sixth year, and over $240,000 over the course of a participants’ entire career.

Employer Perspective

Employer participation and buy-in is a critical factor of implementing a strong apprenticeship culture in the United States. “I have been so critical of my business peers for their lack of foresight and vision,” said John Lukas, Vice President of LDI Industries, Inc. at the event. LDI Industries is a family-owned small business headquartered in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and has had a strong apprenticeship program for over 20 years. Lukas explained how valuable the apprenticeship program was not only for the program participants, but also for the company itself. “It is an integral part of the company, its atmosphere. We created it in LDI, and now we’re trying to sell it to other employers,” said Lukas.

There are other ways to make employer participation easier. The Century Foundation report includes examples like industry/school partnerships, or state and federal tax credits to incentivize creating apprenticeship programs. A strong case can be made that apprenticeship programs are not burdens, they’re good business sense.

Apprenticeships might not be the silver bullet in reducing youth unemployment, but the evidence suggests that a “earn as you learn” system can boost earnings and provide a foot in the door for young people who enter the workforce shortly after high school graduation.

George Knowles is the Digital Communications Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.