To Get More Young People Into Good Jobs, a New Focus on Apprenticeships

Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

For centuries, craftsmen and tradespeople engaged young people in long-term learning roles intended to pass on techniques and skills. In recent decades, though, this pathway into the skilled trades has shrunk, replaced by the pervasive belief that college is the best route to a secure career.

But college isn’t appropriate or accessible for everyone. Many low-income students drop out of college for financial and personal reasons; millions more who do get degrees struggle because their skills don’t match the job market and/or they’re saddled with student debt. Meanwhile, employers can’t fill a range of jobs that require specialized skills and training—but not a college education. A case in point: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that America will face a growing shortage of electricians in coming years. A similar skills shortage exists in plumbing and other trades.

One philanthropic strategy to address that gap involves adapting the apprenticeship model to better fit today’s economy. With the backing of several big-name funders, New America’s Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA) is expanding its work in this area.

PAYA got up and running in late 2018. It’s a grantmaking program, but it also aims to boost general awareness of the model among educators, employers and policymakers. Toward that end, PAYA has laid out explanatory material on youth apprenticeships for those in the dark about how it works. According to PAYA, the key components of high-quality youth apprenticeships are (1) paid, on-the-job learning, (2) related classroom instruction, (3) ongoing assessment and (4) a portable, industry-recognized credential and postsecondary credit.

PAYA’s supporters include corporate funders like workforce development heavyweight JPMorgan Chase and the Siemens Foundation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Ballmer Group, and Bloomberg Philanthropies also back the program. PAYA is based at New America, a think tank with lots of well-heeled philanthropic funders.

PAYA promotes apprenticeships as an advantage for companies in need of young talent and youth seeking economic mobility. That narrative likely appeals to anti-poverty funders with origins in business like Ballmer and Bloomberg. And PAYA does have a point: There is a growing disconnect between education and economic mobility in this country, one that high-engagement strategies like youth apprenticeships can address.

But will those strategies make a lasting difference? Some funders in this space are hedging their bets on that question, supporting industry-adjacent workforce programs while they also back harder-hitting advocacy for workers’ rights. Among PAYA’s supporters, Annie E. Casey and Joyce both fit that bill. And a number of other big legacy funders that underwrite the labor movement also support apprenticeships and similar workforce solutions—the James Irvine Foundation is one; Ford is another. But so far, the Ballmer Group, for all its interest in helping low-income families, has not backed the new labor movement groups pushing to increase wages and benefits for workers in poorly paid industries like retail and restaurants.

PAYA is currently reviewing applications for its first grant cycle, which will support local public-private partnerships that engage industry leaders, educational institutions, political leaders and community partners. According to PAYA, structured public-private partnerships are the best way for the model to achieve scale across the country. If selected, partnerships will receive funding—not to include wage subsidies—and technical assistance. Future grant cycles have yet to be announced, but PAYA is set up to operate over at least several years.

PAYA is also taking steps to build interest in apprenticeships among state leaders in the public and private sectors. And there has been some movement in that arena lately. CareerWise Colorado, for instance, draws on support from funders including JPMorgan Chase, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Markle Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation toward a goal of 20,000 youth apprentices in the state by 2027. Maryland and Wisconsin have also developed successful state programs, and California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has expressed a great deal of support for the approach.