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Equitable Earnings: Recognizing the Benefits—and Addressing the Shortfalls—of Apprenticeships

October 27, 2022

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

A new study by Abt for the Department of Labor shows an apprenticeship program improved wages across the board, but equity--not just in earnings but in career choices—remains a challenge. From supportive services for participants to the benefits of mentors, Dr. Katrina Bledsoe and study author Karen Gardiner discuss possible solutions.

Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to The Intersect. I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Associates tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening—and maybe even fun—to pair up colleagues from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Dr. Katrina Bledsoe and Karen Gardiner. Katrina is a trained evaluator, mixed methodologist, and social psychologist. Her evaluation work is focused on community-based social services, health and education evaluation and programming, and culturally responsive and equity-focused approaches. Karen has almost 30 years of research and evaluation experience on a wide range of programs and policies related to low-income individuals, including employment and training programs, welfare reform, and child support enforcement. Welcome!

Karen Gardiner: Hi. Thanks for having me. Hi, Katrina.

Katrina Bledsoe: Hey, wonderful. Thanks for bringing us together.

Eric: My pleasure. And now let me be a downer for a second. Employment and a fair wage are crucial to providing essential elements of wellbeing such as food, housing, and health, which is why income equity is so important. Apprenticeships and internships can offer paths to well-paying jobs, but the same people receiving inequitable wages often don't receive these opportunities. So how can we change this trend and provide better outcomes for people who traditionally struggle to earn a truly fair wage?

Karen, you just evaluated a Department of Labor initiative that aimed to expand registered apprenticeships to non-traditional occupations and populations typically underrepresented in apprenticeships. So what can you tell us about the potential benefits of these apprenticeships as well as areas that still need addressing?

Karen: Thank you, Eric. Registered Apprenticeship is a workforce training model that combines on-the-job training from a mentor at the work site with related classroom instruction. So one of the nice aspects of apprenticeship is that the participants are actually hired. They earn while they learn. They receive a wage, and the wage increases over time as they master new skills.

Apprenticeship is used widely in other countries like Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, but in the U.S., it's traditionally been used in the construction industry. Because it's a promising workforce training model, the U.S. Department of Labor, like you said. Eric, is trying to expand it in this country to non-traditional industries, that is, those that are not construction. So this includes healthcare, advanced manufacturing, IT, and to participants traditionally underrepresented in apprenticeship, so women, black, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Island workers, basically, people who are not white men, which has been the population traditionally involved in apprenticeship. So Abt is studying one of DOL's efforts to expand apprenticeship called the American Apprenticeship Initiative.

Eric: Can you sort of characterize what you've been seeing with these non-traditional apprenticeships? What are the successes with wages and what are the gaps that are remaining, would you say?

Karen: Okay, so we explored the extent to which the American Apprenticeship Initiative met the goals of expanding to non-traditional populations and non-traditional occupations. And we found that in fact, most American Apprenticeship Initiative apprentices were from underrepresented populations, so that was a big gain. Upwards of two thirds were, and most apprentices did in fact work in non-traditional occupations. The most common occupation was advanced manufacturing, with a fair number in healthcare. And I do want to say a word about advanced manufacturing because that's a term that maybe people aren't that familiar with. But when one thinks about manufacturing, the image might be of heavy machinery that takes a lot of physical labor to operate. Advanced manufacturing actually uses technology to create whatever the product is rather than labor, so production activities, they use information, automation, computation, software. So, it's really a different form of manufacturing.

We did see that all groups of apprentices increased their earnings from the period prior to starting their apprenticeship through comparing it to one year after completing. On average, apprentices' earnings grew about 50 percent. There were some differences, however, between groups. Interestingly, women's earnings grew faster than men's earnings. But at the end, they were still earning a little bit less than men, but the gap between earnings decreased significantly between the pre and post apprenticeship period. White and Hispanic apprentices earnings grew at a slightly faster pace than those of Black apprentices. So, we're still exploring some of the differences for these gaps.

One difference is occupational selection. We found that apprentices who worked in IT and healthcare occupations had the largest wage gains compared to, say, construction and advanced manufacturing. So most of the difference in earnings growth between Black and white apprentices actually occurs among women. For example, we saw that more white women apprentices than Black women apprentices enrolled in registered nursing apprenticeship programs, whereas more Black women apprentices pursued pharmacy technology apprenticeships. Both are good career opportunities but, in terms of wages, registered nurses make much more than pharmacy technicians.

Eric: Interesting.

Karen: Yeah. So some of the other differences, it's attributable to whether the apprentice already worked for the employer or whether the apprentice was a newly hired individual at the employer's work site. We found that new workers have much higher earnings gains, in part because they earned less before the apprenticeship than did the people already working at the company, who we like to call “incumbent workers.” But in the end, the new workers actually exceeded the earnings of the existing workers, so that was an interesting finding.

Eric: Great. Katrina, I see you nodding on screen here. You want to talk about how these results dovetail with work you've done internships and apprenticeships? And I know you wanted to define those terms, right, internships and apprenticeships. You want to start there and then talk about what you make of these findings?

Katrina: Yeah, just because I just thought that Karen ... her study is the thing that I really, really want to cover, really want to compliment on. But I think one of the things that people tend to do is they tend to go, "Oh, hey, what about apprenticeships versus internships?" And they usually like to think they're the same, and they're not. A lot of times, organizations will hire folks in apprenticeships with the thought of moving them into the organization and into that particular section within the organization. So I want to make that case, in a lot of instances--although not all, but a lot--internships are much more student-based. That's where we've gotten a lot of our folks, although not necessarily. But again, much more short term, much more with a set of criteria, and usually either a stipend of some kind but not a living wage there.

I wanted to say a couple of things about Karen's report. I found this was really just a real interesting study, and I'm really hoping that you're going to continue to dig into that. Because I was thinking about one of the things that I was saying earlier before we started was that even though within the AAI apprenticeship or program, there's still gaps. So you still have gaps. Everybody's improved, but you still have gaps between different groups, as Karen pointed out. In particular, some groups actually make a better run or they make faster gains than other groups do, for instance, the finding with men and women. I know that women are making a bigger gain or much quicker gain than men, but some of it is that they're still a little bit below them even when it comes out to be in terms of actual wage. Part of it is women start at a lower rate, anyway, so even if you move that, there's still... unless you're really going to close the gap, there's always going to be a tiny bit of a gap. And I'm not making an excuse for that. I'm just saying unless we're willing to close the gap and start with that wage so that everybody can come up, then you're probably still going to have that smaller gap no matter how quickly women might raise.

I also wanted to say a little something about this in terms of the differences we see between African Americans and whites and other groups who may be in different sectors and what they choose to be in. For instance, if you're looking at Black women and white women, a lot of instances is that it takes a longer time to go through nursing school. I know I grew up with a nurse who taught nursing, but she taught certified nursing. My mom was a registered nurse. But to go through actual school, you had to go through three years, and then of course you have to go through an apprenticeship in that way, and then take a board. A lot of folks don't have that opportunity to do that, nor do they have the financial backing. So you also have that gap between there. What you're going to find is those folks who might be in a pharm tech or a certified nurse, they can get there a lot quicker, within a year's time, maybe 18 months, and they can start working immediately or apprentice while they go.

What do we need to do in those apprenticeships to ensure that we don't necessarily have those gaps in who goes in there, especially for men. Women tend to go in the helping profession, so of course it makes sense that they're going to be in healthcare and things of that nature. Whereas men tend to go into STEM, all those things that we have historically been segregated in and that still continues. So we're still dealing with that. All those programs like AI, those are the way to, I think they're making a move towards trying to move us in a different direction, but we're still struggling with that.

Karen: I totally agree with you, Katrina. One of the difficult aspects of this study is trying to disentangle what the drivers are of the actual wage gains. Is it because it's women? Is it because it's healthcare? How much is it occupation? How much is it that somebody's been in the workforce versus not been in the workforce? I do believe we can close the earnings gap between men and women if we can encourage more women to go into the occupations that pay higher. So I think that's an area where apprenticeship programs can put some more focus, how to educate potential apprentices about the opportunities with each different kind of career path. I would personally like to learn a lot more about how these individual apprentices ended up in the programs. How much of it was these were the options available to them versus this is something they sought out and they really wanted to be, say a pharmacy tech versus an RN? Or did they not have the opportunity because there was no RN apprenticeship program available?

Katrina: I'm with you. I think there are a lot of factors that really influence why people end up in certain spaces. But to your point, it could be that people were really like, "Hey, we really like pharm tech. It's great. It's been something that has been a way and we understand its ways to do with the sciences." It could be that. And there could be other aspects of it of, "That's what we were given choice of," issues of that nature. Where I think that apprenticeship programs, to your point about what they can do as well, because I really do think that apprenticeship programs if people can invest in those, can help us break some of those locks that we think of that might, some of those barriers. Such as, I would think that if women wanted to be going to manufacturing or IT or tech, usually they still bear the brunt of primary caregiving, whether it is children or elder care. The sandwich generation is a lot of women bearing that brunt. How can apprenticeship programs, for instance I would think, what can they do to help alleviate that? Do you have a little extra time? Are you willing to provide some space for us to have childcare on site? All of those different things, there's way to do that.

Karen: I think that's a very good point. And one of the findings from our study, I don't know if you noted this when you were looking through the report, but most apprentices did complete, or they were still enrolled at the time that we collected data, the follow up period. About 15 percent though, and this is pretty consistent across all the different groups, left before completing their apprenticeship. And the most common reason for leaving was personal and family problems. And that was the most common reason for all different groups. But if you look at women, it was over 50 percent of women cited that reason as opposed to maybe 39% of men.

And that brings me back to your point which is, what can programs do in the way of providing supportive services while people are in apprenticeships? And here we're talking about the supportive services primarily being provided through the employer because that's where the apprentice spends most of their time. But in our study, we did see that most people, regardless of their group, did not receive supportive services as part of their program. And those who did receive services, it was more likely to be kind of an academic tutoring type than a supportive service like a transportation or a childcare or something like that. So I think there's definitely more that can be done there to help people persist and complete their programs.

Katrina: And I agree. That's not surprising, certainly about women bearing that. And then once you start cutting across and getting even further and going into racial and gender disparities ... and I have to say, I was really struck at that there was disparities, ethnic and racial disparities. But every time ... I hate to say this, every time I'm in a space when I'm looking at that, I always notice that that African Americans really struggle in the space in just about across the sectors. And I'm still trying to get a sense of what that is and if there's something deeper in that. And then when you start cutting across gender, it gets even more. Anything that you're thinking about that, Karen? I'm looking at that.

Karen: Yeah, it definitely is like you said, something that persists. And I'm thinking about one statistic in particular. Most apprentices when they complete, stay with their current employer. The exceptions are people in the IT world who leave to go somewhere else. And I think that really is part of why we see IT wages increasing as quickly as we do, because people are taking off and leaving for the highest bidder, so to speak. But of all the groups, the Black apprentices are the least likely to stay with their current employer. That's not to say most of them aren't with the current employer, but a lower percentage are than, say, white or Latinx or Asian and Pacific Islander apprentices. So that just makes me wonder, how can we dig in more and learn about what it is about the apprenticeship experience with the employer that seems to be ending with the apprenticeship's conclusion for Black apprentices more often than other racial or ethnic groups. I can't really answer that question with the data that I have, but I think it's definitely one worth looking into.

Katrina: I think that's where our data, when we're in the future as we're looking further on that, where we want to dig into. What's the experience that people are having in those apprenticeships where you may be doing better than you might have been doing someplace else, but you're just not motivated to stay? Some of it could be family, some of it could be community, some of it could be health. There's a lot of different things. But what about also in the employer situation that might make it feel comfortable or you belonging, you feel included, even if you have the skill set.

Eric: Katrina, I know you were spitballing there, but are there any best practices we know of that we might want to marry to these apprenticeship programs? Even knowing, even understanding we want more data and there's definitely a call for more data, but any tentative steps we could take now?

Katrina: Yeah, I don't know. Karen, did you want to say anything on that or ...?

Karen: Well, one thing that we haven't talked about I think is worth mentioning, and that's the role of pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship access and then completion. So the American Apprenticeship Initiative also supported pre-apprenticeship programs, which unlike apprenticeship programs, they're not registered in the sense that they aren't approved by either the federal government or a state apprenticeship agency. They're much shorter. They focus more on building some basic academic skills, career knowledge, some potential on the job learning, but it's not paid. And the idea is that a pre-apprenticeship program has to have a direct pathway into, or at least the opportunity to enter a registered apprenticeship program.

So we did see that an even larger share of pre-apprentices were from underrepresented groups, which was interesting. So it definitely seems to be a way to identify or cast the net wider to potential apprentice applicants. And I think that it could be, to the extent that we're seeing differences in groups and the types of occupation. Again, looking at pharm tech versus registered nurse, if it's a matter of not having a certain skill level to get into an apprenticeship program, pre-apprenticeship can be an on ramp to a different type of program.

So I know the Department of Labor is very interested in pre-apprenticeship. It's something that they're continuing to study and to look at how these programs are structured and how they have on ramps to registered apprenticeship. So I think that's one strategy that bears more exploration. I think other strategies are kind of the guidance in counseling around selecting a program, providing supportive services while people are in a program so that they can persist and overcome whatever potential barriers might disrupt their program completion.

Katrina: Yeah, no, and Eric, I know you were going to say something, but I'll just jump in really quickly. I think just to the point of talking about pre-apprenticeships, I also say that internships are also a way to get your feet wet, albeit at a very limited time to an apprenticeship, because at least you're walking away with some skill set that would be helpful as well. So I absolutely agree with that and Karen's points about guidance and counseling and services and being able to provide support. And mentoring and coaching fits in that space of guidance because so many people end up in spaces. And what I find, even in apprenticeships and at the internship level, is if you don't have a mentor that is there that you can use as a support network, even if you're only talking to that person once a month, it just feels like a very lonely space. And the other thing I would say is those support networks and communities of practice or learning affinity groups or something where people can talk about their experiences and compare and contrast and learn from one another, those are very successful as well.

Karen: I'm so glad you brought up the mentor, because the mentor is such a key component of a registered apprenticeship program. The mentor provides the bulk on the job learning. It can either be one on one or small groups. So if you don't have a good relationship with your mentor, it can really affect your time in the program, your impression of the program, and even your interest in the industry generally. And I don't think we ... we know a lot about the importance of having, say, a mentor that looks like you, who's female or who's Black or who's Latinx, and that's another area that I think is worth digging into.

Katrina: Absolutely. Eric, I know you were going to have a comment in there.

Eric: I was just going to point out, and I think you referred to it a little bit, but you had said earlier that in some cases, and this might be more true for African American participants, but without that home support to pursue those more extensive certifications. So maybe something to consider is having that support built into these programs might be another way to help with retention or help people just go for those more lucrative tracks that they otherwise feel like they can't pursue.

Katrina: And that's across the board. I think just any background, some backgrounds might benefit or have access to more of those strategies that we were talking about. But across the board for anybody, if you've got mentoring and support, it's not a complete guarantee that everything's going to go rosy, rosy. But in most cases, you're probably going to do a lot better than if you do not have those.

Karen: I mean even in my own experience, this industry that we're in can be a very difficult one to stay in. And for me, it made all the difference to have a mentor who really walked me through, slowly and surely, how to do each piece of this job with doing the project work and the proposals and everything else. And I know a lot of people who cycle in and out of our industry quickly, I think is because they don't have somebody there showing them the path.

Katrina: And that's exactly the same thing I've been in for probably far longer than a lot of folks I know, from what I've heard. Some of the folks, certainly in the DC area when I came to town, they said it's about a five year, it's burnout, it's about five years. And I'm 20 years in. But the issue is that I had mentors in different perspectives, some from the theoretical perspective, some from the project management perspective, some from doing research and evaluation. Just having those folks and then started to get more mentors, so in a way, you just build that network of folks, and that's really, really helpful. Yeah, never underestimate the power of a network, I'm finding. It does a lot.

Eric: Well, that's interesting. It's not one dose and you're done. You need to have that thread pulling you through your career. But it's also interesting, we have a lot of other questions I guess that need to be validated as well. But even the early offering, it's great, Karen, that you have all this initial data and yet we've identified a lot more data that's going to help us chart that way forward. So I'm glad we got to talk about this. Thank you both for joining me.

Katrina: Oh, thank you.

Karen: It was fun talking with you, Katrina.

Katrina: It was fun talking with you, too. I love this study. I can't wait to see where you're going with it.

Karen: I can't wait, either.

Eric: Well, the good news is you don't have to wait too much longer to join us again at The Intercept.

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