By Eric Seleznow (senior advisor, JFF, Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning) and Charlotte Cahill (director, JFF, Pathways to Prosperity Network)
In a rapidly changing economy in which employers are constantly adapting to the latest innovations and technology, they need the support of an aligned education and training system that can adapt alongside them. How do youth apprenticeship programs serve employers who, in this tightening labor market, still struggle to recruit the workers they need today with requisite skills and readiness for the workplace? And how can youth apprenticeships be sure to meet the current and future needs of employers in a local labor market?
JFF is proud to join with the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA) to answer these and other critical questions as part of an effort to transform how the nation’s education system prepares young people for careers and launches them into a successful adulthood. As a PAYA partner, JFF believes apprenticeship can promote a more inclusive economy while also meeting the needs of business. For 35 years, JFF has been a strong advocate for youth and a leader in promoting apprenticeship and other quality work-based learning models. Our Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning and Pathways to Prosperity Network work with state, regional, and local partners to spur mainstream adoption of high-quality work-based learning programs. At JFF, we think that apprenticeship—particularly youth apprenticeship—is uniquely positioned to meet employer needs for a skilled, diverse talent pipeline while preparing youth for careers in high-wage, high-demand industries. Apprentices are provided with academic instruction that provides a solid theoretical grounding in an industry with on-the-job learning that has immediate application to the needs of a company.
One of the five PAYA principles for high-quality youth apprenticeship urges programs to be “adaptable.” Adaptable means that the learning component is collaboratively designed to be recognized and valued across an industry or sector. An adaptable youth apprenticeship:
- Promotes strategies that involve multiple employers, leverage industry-wide standards, and connect to local education and community partners.
- Addresses the needs of participating employers by broadening their access to talent with industry-recognized skills and valued credentials.
- Supports the economic success of local, regional, and state employer partners.
Youth apprenticeships aren’t intended to simply get a student a job. Rather, they are meant to teach young people a broad range of skills and knowledge that youth can use to launch successful careers and identify areas to pursue in greater depth in postsecondary education and/or training. This means that youth apprenticeships have to be broad enough to meet the common needs across an industry while also having enough flexibility to incorporate the individual needs of employers. This can only be done if local programs and partners understand their key industry sectors, labor market trends, and current and emerging workforce and learning needs of their local employers. It also requires the employers themselves to collaborate to identify the knowledge, skills, and competencies with broad value for students to learn in an industry, sector, or region.
Youth apprenticeship programs can benefit from a few strategies that have been tested by the education and workforce systems, and that have successfully demonstrated relevance to, and coordinated and active participation among, employers:
First, as states and cities look to develop youth apprenticeship programs, we can learn much from the “sector partnership” movement over the last 30 years.
These partnerships bring together employers within an industry sector with government, education, economic development, and community organizations to identify and address near- and long-term workforce needs within a regional labor market. These types of partnerships allow local youth apprenticeship partners to understand industry standards, provide direct access to young talent in their communities, and support local economic success while training the next generation of workers. These partnerships need to be adaptable to local conditions to align the skill needs of industry with the education and training solutions in that community. When done right, these partnerships are able to work collaboratively with local industry to design learning strategies and programs that are recognized and valued across the industry or sector in that community.
Second, embedding industry-recognized credentials and certifications within youth apprenticeships is valuable to both employers and participants.
Employers who work with educators and workforce developers to identify and incorporate industry-valued credentials are strengthening their talent pipelines earlier. Youth who have the opportunity to earn portable, stackable, industry-recognized credentials develop skills and knowledge that can form the basis of successful careers as well as inform and refine their decisions about postsecondary education and training. At the state level, policy makers can support and incentivize youth apprenticeship strategies that support the attainment of valuable credentials.
Third, youth apprenticeships can be a key part of college and career pathways that are “reverse mapped” from state and regional labor markets into the design of postsecondary education programs, and from there, inform the structure of secondary education programs of study.
Pathways designed in this way support young people in transitioning seamlessly from high school to postsecondary education to careers while simultaneously meeting employer needs.
We have an exceptional opportunity to build on the current momentum to promote youth apprenticeship as a workforce and economic development solution by demonstrating its value to employers. Youth apprenticeships are being incorporated into a continuum of increasingly complex work-based learning experiences available to students. Apprenticeship makes sense to industry—it helps them “grow their own” workers and to align work and learning collaboratively, and move young people up and into middle- and high-skill positions in their home communities. With the right guidance, information, and support, an increasing number of employers will invest in youth-focused apprenticeship programs that set high standards and accelerate people into more productive, higher-skilled career pathways.
PAYA’s set of guiding principles for high-quality youth apprenticeship provides clear and common direction to the field and substantial foundation to move this work forward.