After 14 months of incarceration in a county jail in Mississippi, Tawyna Lundberg was released with only the clothes on her back and no place to go. Two years later, she is now a certified structural welder doing preventive maintenance for an HVAC company. She owns a car, and she’s saving up to buy her first home.
Lundberg is one of more than 250 women who have successfully completed the Women in Construction (WinC) pre-apprenticeship program in Biloxi, Mississippi. This eight-week program prepares low-income women for apprenticeships or other construction jobs—it covers everything from basic safety, construction math, and handling power tools, to workers’ rights and the history of the trades.
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Like Lundberg, many of the women in WinC face significant barriers to employment, including histories of domestic violence, homelessness, lack of access to affordable, quality child care, or inadequate health care (Mississippi has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act). That’s why WinC provides case management services and child care through Early Head Start, in addition to traditional job training.
“The job training is sort of a jumping off point for so many people,” says Julie Kuklinski, the program’s director. “And our comprehensive services also help participants get where they want to go.”
For some graduates, WinC may launch them into an apprenticeship, which allows them to earn a wage while learning skills on the job and through classroom instruction. Research shows that apprenticeship raises worker productivity and leads to competitive wages—the average starting wage for someone who has completed an apprenticeship program is $50,000.
Pre-apprenticeship programs like WinC not only help marginalized workers gain economic security, they also help employers establish a pipeline for diverse, skilled workers. But there are very few programs like it across the country. As a result, apprenticeship programs are often inaccessible to the people who would most benefit from them.
For example, the construction industry offers many high-wage apprenticeships, but in 2013 just 2.1% of these apprentices were women. At the same time, women and people of color were overrepresented in the lowest-wage apprenticeship programs, where average earnings are less than $15 per hour.
Moreover, recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) shows that apprenticeship programs are often less diverse than the occupations they ultimately serve. This suggests that while people of color are employed in these occupations, they are less likely to receive training and obtain a credential—and therefore earn the same pay as those who complete an apprenticeship—for their work. It is not totally clear why women and people of color are underrepresented in apprenticeship programs, but discrimination in the hiring process and on the job likely play a role.
Historically, federal efforts to make apprenticeship programs more racially and gender diverse have had limited success. But that is beginning to change.
President Barack Obama recently set a national goal to double the number of apprenticeship programs over five years, and to increase opportunities for women and people of color to participate in them. To support this effort, the Administration and Congress have authorized $265 million in competitive grants for apprenticeships.
The DOL has also made achieving racial and gender diversity a priority of this grant-making process. And, for the first time since 1978, the agency has taken steps to modernize the Equal Opportunity Employment regulation that prohibits discrimination and requires affirmative action in apprenticeship programs. Given the very limited progress we have made on diversifying apprenticeships in the intervening decades, this is a critical regulatory fix.
But more must be done.
Congress should ensure that there is dedicated funding to help states and localities develop new and diverse pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Congress should also ensure that this funding is tied to achieving goals of increased participation by women and people of color, particularly in high-wage fields.
With thoughtful and targeted policy changes like these, we can ensure that all workers—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or disability status—have a fair shot at a good job through an apprenticeship.