Apprenticeships have massive potential to transform Appalachia’s workforce
ReImagine Appalachia is a coalition of policy, labor, environmental and racial equity groups working toward recovery and prosperity for Ohio River Valley communities, co-directed by Policy Matters Ohio Senior Researcher Amanda Woodrum. The ReImagine blueprint of policy solutions has been endorsed by over 120 organizations working in Appalachia, including Policy Matters Ohio. As part of our shared economic and workforce development agenda, ReImagine advocates the expansion of union apprenticeship programs as an accessible pathway to family-sustaining jobs.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) sent transformational federal funds to Appalachia and across the nation, especially for green infrastructure that will slow climate change. However, funding alone is not enough to address Appalachia’s needs; the money must come with recommendations and stipulations that ensure the creation of good, union jobs that are available to people who are often excluded from opportunity based on their race, gender or where they live. The Biden administration’s BIL Good Jobs Initiative helps do this by creating opportunities for people who are learning a trade as apprentices and pre-apprentices to train on federally-funded projects. Apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, especially those run by unions, have massive potential to transform Appalachia’s workforce. Given the renewed discussion of apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships sparked by the BIL, here are the ABCs of apprenticeship.
What are apprenticeships and apprenticeship readiness programs?
Apprenticeship is a centuries-old practice that originated in Europe. Today, the practice has been standardized into apprenticeship programs. Most prevalent in the industrial and construction trades, apprenticeship programs allow their trainees to learn by doing, while being mentored by those already certified in their trade. Many apprenticeship programs are jointly funded by the unions and employers. These programs blend on-the-job training with classroom instruction, providing a holistic experience that trainees can immediately put to good use. Despite their substantial benefits, apprenticeships are under-utilized in the United States. For example, in 2019, Pennsylvania’s Keystone Research Center estimated that while apprentices make up more than 1.5% of the labor force in countries like Germany, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, they make up only 0.3% of the labor force in Pennsylvania.
Apprenticeships are beneficial to both employers and employees. Employers get committed employees that are specially and expertly trained in their trade. Employees get pathways into good, family-sustaining, union jobs, and they earn a steady paycheck while training for those jobs.
Pre-apprenticeships, or apprenticeship readiness programs, prepare their participants to be competitive applicants for apprenticeships. These programs give participants the math, reading, financial, and computer literacy skills necessary to pass apprenticeship entry exams, as well as provide practical training. Many also provide stipends for time spent in classrooms and on-the-job training opportunities. They may also reduce barriers to completing training programs by connecting participants to public benefits like subsidized child care and transportation, as well as other practical items like work boots.
Why should these programs matter, right now, to Appalachian communities?
Absentee corporations in extractive industries have long exploited the resources of the Ohio River Valley, forcing many people who live there into poverty-wage jobs while leaving the land scarred and the water and air contaminated. To effectively combat these pervasive issues, we must ensure that there are accessible pathways to good, union jobs, and that people who need those good jobs have the skills to take advantage of those pathways.
Apprenticeships can help address Appalachia’s challenges. They provide a no-debt model of learning and, in some apprenticeship programs, earning college credit or associate degrees. These programs recognize the importance of workers’ skills and cultivate those skills accordingly to build career pathways into quality jobs. Instead of condescending to working people, apprenticeships recognize the crucial nature of their contributions.
What do these programs look like in practice?
Many unions already have thriving apprenticeship programs. In central Ohio, the IBEW runs the Electrical Trades Center, which offers apprenticeships to train future inside wiremen and installer-technicians. Apprentices at the Electrical Trades Center perform thousands of hours of on-the-job training, earning steady union wages as they go.
Some apprenticeship programs enable apprentices to earn college credit or degrees as they complete their training. The Electrical Trades Center partners with Columbus State Community College and Franklin University to coordinate opportunities for a college education stemming from their apprenticeship programs. The Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia is accredited to confer associate degrees as a standalone institution; in addition, it has articulation agreements with a number of Pennsylvania universities. Apprenticeships are often the cheapest route to college and a family-sustaining job, all at the same time.
Pre-apprenticeship programs, also known as apprenticeship readiness programs, have also been successfully implemented in the Ohio River Valley states. Central Ohio’s Building Futures program prepares its participants for an apprenticeship in the building trades by teaching basic construction skills, as well as financial literacy, math, and reading. Another established pre-apprenticeship program is Pittsburgh’s six-week Intro to the Trades.
Can apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs have environmental benefits?
Apprenticeships are poised to play a pivotal role in Appalachia’s transition to clean energy. While Appalachia’s working people already hold many of the vital skills required by jobs in the clean energy and technology sectors, these emerging jobs also require new skills that apprenticeships can build. Apprenticeships can make green jobs accessible, in turn drawing more people into the clean energy and technology movements.
How can we ensure that funding for these programs benefits people who are often excluded, exploited or underserved?
For one—unions. Union apprenticeship programs train higher proportions of women and people of color than non-union programs. Between 2000 and 2016, union apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania accounted for nine out of every 10 construction apprentices in the state who were women or people of color, while training nearly six out of every seven construction apprentices in the state overall. Union apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania also showed higher graduation rates for women, people of color, and veterans than non-union programs.
Additionally, public support for apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships should not stand alone but should instead be part of a comprehensive strategy to make our economy more equitable. Ensuring union rights for all and substantially raising the minimum wage, along with supporting accessible apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, will foster economic recovery and prosperity for people of all backgrounds living in the Ohio River Valley.
How do these programs fit into ReImagine Appalachia’s agenda?
ReImagine Appalachia views economic and workforce development as inseparable fields whose relationship is crucial to future Appalachian prosperity—economic growth in Appalachia cannot and should not happen without corresponding growth in job and training opportunities. The growth of quality apprenticeships will ensure that economic and workforce development in Appalachia happen in conjunction with one another.
Policymakers can take immediate action to grow apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs by stipulating their involvement in publicly funded projects. Federal or state entities that provide resources for development can require in law, program guidelines, or with requests for proposals (RFPs) that apprentices and pre-apprentices complete a specified number or proportion of work hours on publicly funded projects.
Finally, support for apprenticeships should be woven into a larger policy agenda to promote equity and dignity for all workers and their families, no matter their trade. In addition to calling for increased support for apprenticeship programs, ReImagine Appalachia calls on policymakers to pass a substantial increase in the minimum wage and fiercely protect union rights for all.
TagsClean Energy & Green JobsEducation & TrainingReImagine AppalachiaWork & Wages
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