As a high school student in west central Georgia, Kevin Yonker became a youth apprentice at the aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. After completing his apprenticeship, he was offered a position at the company in 2018 and is now an employee at their offices in Columbus, Georgia.
“The program changed my life,” said Yonker. “I was a kid with no goals or ambitions, but during the program, I started thinking about my career and what I wanted to do professionally. The program works and is a great opportunity for any kid who is interested.”
Youth apprenticeships connect many high school students like Yonker to a combination of school and work-based learning. The programs can strengthen the local workforce, increase economic growth, create career pathways, and meet employers’ needs for skilled, productive workers.
“Apprenticeships are for anybody that wants to gain an occupational capability mostly by doing and learning in a real workplace,” explained Urban Institute fellow Robert Lerman, speaking on a recent episode of Urban’s podcast, Critical Value.
Youth apprenticeships are designed to help students gain in-demand skills for a wide range of industries, including health care, information technology, construction, hospitality, and agriculture. Often, youth apprentices receive industry-recognized credentials or certificates after completing the program. Some of these credentials and skill sets are found in Urban’s competency-based occupational frameworks for registered apprenticeships.
“Apprenticeships widen the roots to rewarding careers,” said Lerman, whose research focuses on apprenticeship programs. “We measure earnings, which is important, but we don’t measure [apprentices’] pathways or pride in accomplishing a level of expertise.”
Apprenticeships have the potential to close the wage gap between high school and college graduates. Eighty-seven percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs. The average starting salary is above $50,000, without the burden of student loan debt.
“Apprenticeships are a really good mechanism for economic mobility,” said Urban senior research associate Diana Elliott. “The programs are great opportunities for students to enter a world that wasn’t typically open to them—a really well-paying world.”
How can youth apprenticeships benefit employers?
Strong apprenticeship programs rely on the enthusiastic participation of employers, who are sometimes hesitant. Elliott added, “There’s resistance to trying something new.… Resistance to the idea that [employers are] going to spend a lot of money to train someone and then [apprentices are] going to leave, [and that] it’s way too expensive to do.”
Though employers sometimes view apprenticeships as expensive and time consuming, it can be even more difficult to hire skilled workers externally. A 2019 SHRM report estimates that 83 percent of employers have had difficulty finding suitable job candidates in the past year, and 75 percent of those employers cite a skills shortage as the issue.
“Once companies realize that building skills is a good way to go, they’ll realize the apprentices are learning not only generic occupational skills, they’re learning to apply them in the company’s context. The investment in apprenticeships often pay off even during the apprenticeship itself because the apprentices are going to be doing real work,” elaborated Lerman.
Youth apprentices may also benefit employers by bringing in new energy and skills to the job.
Darla Burton, who works with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, described how reinvigorating the process can be for employers. “Students kind of bring that extra excitement. You remember why you went into the field in the first place, once they’re there.”
The US apprenticeship system could benefit from greater standardization, more public funding, and efforts to organize varying programs. A robust apprenticeship system, particularly one focused on youth apprenticeship, can open career pathways for students and help close skills and wage gaps in the American workforce.