Reflections on National Apprenticeship Week

As another National Apprenticeship Week comes to a close, it’s a good time to reflect upon the importance high road apprenticeship programs have on the future of the American worker.  The role of the Labor Movement has been essential in the creation and continuation of this highly important institution. Established five years ago by the U.S. Department of Labor, National Apprenticeship Week is a nationwide celebration that brings together business leaders, labor, educational institutions, and Americans interested in apprenticeships to showcase the impact apprenticeship programs have on closing the U.S. skills and opportunity gap and preparing the American workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow.  

What is Apprenticeship?

The term apprenticeship is thrown around quite a bit in today’s public and political discourse. However, what is apprenticeship? For this conversation we must begin with what it is not. Apprenticeship is not just another workplace training program, go-nowhere summer internship program rebranded to chase grant funds or to follow “hot trends” in policy circles or workforce practitioners. 

Apprenticeship is an institution. An institution that centers on transformative life-changing principles, sustainability for both the industry and the economy that is formalized through the partnership of unions, employers, education entities, governmental bodies and other industry stakeholders. For workers, apprenticeship offers a clear and structured pathway into a life-changing career acquiring an in-demand skill-set. This pathway is built on the foundation of combining theory (debt-free classroom instruction) and practice (PAID structured and supervised on-the-job training based on full-time employment) that hones the apprentice’s applied critical thinking to excel and succeed in a given career.  We must be clear, apprenticeship leads to somewhere: a career, freedom to take this valuable skill-set anywhere and in many cases out of poverty. Apprenticeship provides a just and equitable alternative to a generation plagued with devastating college debt and bleak employment opportunities after completion. One Job Should Be Enough!

For unions, apprenticeships offers a way to maintain hard-fought-for wages, industry standards, and increased bargaining power. Apprenticeship also serves as an excellent organizing tool because it can be used as way of recruiting workers as well as engaging and providing opportunity and upward mobility to current union members. In turn, apprenticeship programs are the ultimate union member engagement strategy. Because through workforce training, we can further instill dignity, respect and professionalization of our crafts which besides better wages are key aspects of the Union Difference.

For industry, when we support registered apprenticeship programs, we are creating a generation of skilled and trained workers to meet the demand of job expansion and replacement of an aging workforce. In turn, an apprenticeship-trained workforce enables local high road employers to compete in the global economy. Also, through the partnership of industry stakeholders (Labor and Management) and training programs they create that current workers will have the proper skill sets that address the uncertainties that are connected to the future of work.  In sum for all these reasons why any apprenticeship program must be worker centered, industry led and community focused.

The Folks that Brought you the Weekend—And also the opportunity of upward mobility!

The concept and the institution of apprenticeship was born out of the Labor Movement. Drawing on the traditions of guilds and early labor organizations, the American Labor Movement was critical in the definition and uplifting of what we know as apprenticeship programs today. Registered apprenticeship programs are at the core of the maintaining our industry standards while providing the next generation with a clear and equitable guided pathway into family sustaining union jobs. In general, union apprenticeship programs offer a structured Earn-While-You-Learn approach to lifting up our communities including those that have many barriers to succeed in the labor market. Much work has been done in partnership of unions, community and industry to open up the door to the middle class and reconfirming the Labor Movement’s founding values of striving for social and economic justice. Ultimately, protecting and growing high road union apprenticeship programs is essential to the future of the Labor Movement and shared prosperity of all Californians.

The California Labor Federation has been a long supporter of the Labor Movement’s role in the sustainability and future of apprenticeship. From policies to legislation to advocacy to technical assistance, the Labor Federation has championed its affiliates in their work building some of the most robust apprenticeship programs in the country. The California Labor Federation even has a special department, the Workforce and Economic Development Program which assists the state labor movement in leveraging public funds in support and the development of labor-management training programs and high road apprenticeship programs.

Spotlight on California

According to the Division of Apprenticeship Standards, there are over 94,000 registered apprentices in the state of California. That is the most apprentices that have been registered in the state since the passing of ShelleyMaloney Apprentice Labor Standards Act of 1939, the act that created the state oversight and governing body of Apprenticeship Programs in California. 

A vast majority of the registered apprentices in California are employed in the unionized building and construction trades. For decades, the Building and Construction Trades’ Joint Apprenticeship Training Committees and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California have led the path on creating sustainable and high road pathways into the middle class. Today as in the past, these programs continue transform the economic security and mobility of workers and their families. (* Shot out to my Father’s Union BAC Local 3).

While the Building and Construction Trades make up a majority of Apprenticeship Programs in the State, there are Union Apprenticeship Programs in Healthcare , Hospitality, Manufacturing, Commercial Truck Driving Public/Civil Service, and many other in-demand sectors. Some of these industries might be new to the development of apprenticeship programs, they still uphold the traditions and core values of what a high road apprenticeship program should be.

In the past few decades, inclusivity has been a key focus of unionized apprenticeship programs to expand this opportunity to all our communities. There are currently 66.8% of registered apprentices in the state that identify as minorities. However, only 6.6% of all state registered apprentices are women. This number has increased over the years, but we can always do better to encourage our Sisters and Future Sisters in the Labor Movement to explore apprenticeship opportunities.

Looking Back and Focusing on the Future

As we reflect on another National Apprenticeship Week, it is easy to recognize the extraordinary work the Labor Movement has done and continues to do to expand the development of apprenticeship as institution of impacting positive and equitable change for current and future generations. But to continue this high road workforce pathway and tackle the uncertainties attached to the future of work, we must be direct in centering our attention towards the future of workers and stay on course by implementing and preserving worker centered, industry led and community focused apprenticeship programs.

If you would like more information about union apprenticeship opportunities or if your union is interested in expanding your training opportunities, please contact the Workforce and Economic Development program of the California Labor Federation at cgallagher@calaborfed.org and Jbrauer@calaborfed.org. Or if you would like to learn about best practices in creating high road training programs, stronger apprenticeship programs, developing a more equitable and just workforce system and expanding opportunities to all our communities, please register to attend the Building Workforce Partnerships Conference happening April 14-16, 2020 in San Francisco!