‘Pre-Apprentice’ Programs Can Break Open Jobs for Women

December 23, 2015

Say the word "apprentice" and it's easy to imagine a welder in a hood alongside a journey-worker learning their trade.

When the hood comes up it's probably a man's face you see, but let's leave the hood down for now.

In the federal government funding bill passed last week, Congress agreed to invest $90 million in apprenticeship. This funding must include dedicated funds to change the faces we expect to see under that welder's hood.

Apprenticeship has been around for hundreds of years, but these days apprenticeship is largely seen as a training path for those entering the building trades or manufacturing.

A current push by the president and members of Congress seeks to change that by spreading the system of paid, on-the-job training more widely, to health care, IT, even child care and customer service.

Apprenticeships lead to solid careers in good-paying jobs and women need these positions to support their families and improve their own financial security.

Last month the Department of Labor released a draft of the updated rules for apprenticeship programs and the public can comment until Jan. 4. The rules, which require the sponsors, or employers of apprentices, to reach out to women, look good.

Rules Aren't Enough

But rules aren't enough. In 1978, the last time the rules were rewritten, they also looked good for women and they didn't work.

In 1978 gas cost about $0.67 a gallon, the male-driven cast of "Star Wars Episode IV" dominated the Academy Awards and the first Susan B. Anthony silver dollar was minted. Only 33 percent of women were in the workforce.

Here we are 37 years later. Gas prices have tripled. "Star Wars Episode VII" stars a young woman as the protagonist. There's an ongoing conversation about putting a woman on the $10 bill. Now, close to 60 percent of women are in the paid workforce.

But women's share of apprenticeships, which was 3 percent in 1978, is still only 7 percent. And women's completion rate is drastically lower than men's, which helps explain why women are just over 2 percent of those working in the building trades, the industry that most relies on apprentice labor.

This time the government has to back up the rules with investment that really helps women.

"Pre-apprentice" programs are the way to do this.

Past studies, including one by Westat in 2003 and another by Mathematica Policy Research in 2012, detail the benefits of pre-apprenticeship to women's success in apprenticeship programs. The Westat study, for example, found that Department of Labor grantees providing pre-apprenticeship training to women helped increase employment opportunities for over 5,000 women between 1994 and 2003. The lack of more recent data is evidence of the limited investment the federal government has made in women's access to quality pre-apprenticeship training.

As an advocate in this area I have also seen with my own eyes how these programs help participants gain skills and confidence and move them along to jobs that transform their own lives and those of their families.

These programs offer training and support services that can put women on the right track to apprenticeship.

It could mean basic computer science exposure for someone who may not have had the course in school, and needs it for an IT certificate. It could also mean support figuring out the best way to manage child care for a working mother, or physical fitness training to ensure the woman standing at a computerized numerical control, or CNC machine, has the endurance to do so.

'Congress Can Help'

Congress can help the efforts by funding — and expanding — the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grant programwhich offers a mere $1 million a year to programs training women to access apprenticeship.

There are plenty of strong programs out there ready to help more women if they could only get more funding.

In Chicago, Chicago Women in the Trades trains about 75 women a year to compete for and succeed in apprenticeship programs in the area. In 2015, its graduates earned on average more than $17 an hour in starting wages and over time are expected to incrementally increase these earnings to up to $35-48 an hour.

Similar programs with similar levels of success exist in Oregon (Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.); California (Tradeswomen, Inc.); Vermont (Vermont Works for Women); West Virginia (West Virginia Women Work); Mississippi (Mississippi Women in Construction); Seattle (Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women); and other places across the country.

Each of these programs focus on building women's skill level and providing services — such as alignment with child care and transportation –that can make a woman's success in apprenticeship as likely as possible.

Apprenticeships have been around as long as the modern concept of work. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were both apprentices.

Let's help women join this tradition. After a while, it won't be so surprising to see a woman's face under that welding hood, or to look into a child care center and see an apprentice at work.