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How Can We Make Youth Apprenticeship A Winning Proposition? Look To Youth Sports

June 29, 2021

At a Glance

Amateur sports has a built-in learn-to-work model, industry support, and the cultural relevance that leads to success.

Terrence S. Robinson, vice president of workforce systems design, Success Pathways Alliance

The power of apprenticeship is undeniable: it combines paid on-the-job learning with formal classroom or lab instruction, helping workers master the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed for career success. Youth apprenticeships adapt this model for students in high school and often in their first years after graduation; unfortunately, youth-focused apprenticeships, while gaining traction in the United States, are far more common in other countries.

But the United States does have one notably successful, well-funded, and even beloved talent model for youth career development: sports.

There’s a clear and agreed-upon pathway for American kids through the world of sports—and it resembles an apprenticeship model in more ways than one:

  • Major league sports leagues invest in youth leagues for elementary-aged kids to develop skills and explore the field as a career. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League all sponsor and provide resources for youth development, and many individual franchises within each league invest significantly in youth development within their respective communities—in Cleveland, for instance, the Cleveland Browns hold a youth showcase weekend where K-12 students are invited to engage with football training in an age-appropriate way. The games serve as on-the-job learning, while the related instruction comprises drills and position-specific training.
  • Specialized training camps that target elite high school athletes, while not officially sponsored or sanctioned by the major leagues, are led by expert practitioner coaches who often have experience in the major leagues. In the language of apprenticeship, journey-level workers teach the craft to youth apprentices. Just as many youth apprenticeships extend into postsecondary, sports “youth apprenticeships” continue either through college, overseas leagues, or minor leagues prior to the majors.
  • On-the-job hours are paid in the form of a college scholarship, stipend, or salary. Skills gained by youth athletes are not particular to a single employer but are instead validated across the industry; skills and competencies transfer between the secondary, postsecondary, and professional spheres.
  • Major league employers recognize the contributions of young athletes to the sport, and look to them to identify new critical skills—just as apprentices are workers who bring value prior to becoming a journey-level worker, and often bring innovation sought by top employers.

What if we used that same framework for youth apprenticeship in other industries? We could expose students to a field at an early age, offer broad opportunities to explore and develop basic skills, and let them advance—with access to high-level, expert training—as they begin to specialize. By reimagining apprenticeship in the sports model, we have an opportunity to revolutionize the way young people discover, prepare for, and access the world of apprenticeship—and maybe even let them find some joy in the process.

The lifecycle of youth sports participation emphasizes early exposure, and strong training in broad, transferable skills. As students go along the pathway in sports, they acquire certain skill sets that will provide for them in life even if they never become professional athletes: how to win and to lose graciously, how to compete, how to be disciplined, how to be a part of a team. If and when they choose to advance and specialize, they have access to a robust network of coaches and professionals, in many cases sponsored or subsidized by the professional leagues themselves. The majority of youth sports participants won’t turn pro, but the experiences undoubtedly yield results: an estimated 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOS played youth sports.

Similarly, early exposure, broad skill-building, and gradual specialized training could be exactly what the youth Registered Apprenticeship model needs. Early on, we expose children to the wide world of careers based on their emerging interests, whether they love to work with their hands or create virtual worlds online. Later, we encourage skilled workers and corporations to collectively invest in and engage with their local school systems beyond the career-day model, providing targeted instruction and offering opportunities to not only visit workplaces but also contribute to them. As a student, in adolescence or later, develops more specific and focused interests, the transition to increasingly specialized classroom and work-based learning opportunities—such as learning to draft and read blueprints or operating new software systems and platforms—would be seamless. Workforces and postsecondary institutions would actively scout talent from youth apprentices. With strong partnerships from industry leaders, we could reverse-engineer the career needs of the future to meet the interests and skills of today’s learners and bring new innovation and creativity into secondary education.

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As students go along the pathway in sports, they acquire certain skill sets that will provide for them in life even if they never become professional athletes.

This isn’t intended to box students into early career choices. Just as the Little League participant probably won’t grow up to play professional baseball, the adolescent cybersecurity enthusiast might not follow that path for the rest of their life. The soft and hard skills they learn along the path of exploration, however, will benefit them no matter what career they choose. Critical thinking, complex problem-solving, data analysis—all of these skills would benefit any child, not just those who grow up to work in cybersecurity. As children develop a sense of possibility and the skill sets needed for these possibilities, their horizons expand exponentially. The benefits go both ways: kids grow into adults with a set of skills that can lead to careers that are satisfying and stimulating; corporations have developed the large and diverse pool of talent they need to expand their businesses. As in the youth sports pathway, there doesn’t need to be too much focus on who doesn’t end up pursuing a sports career. They see the value in heavily investing in a robust pipeline to identify and train future cybersecurity specialists, as well as in developing young people who can take their talents to many other fields.

To achieve this, we’d need to replicate the robust support infrastructure that accompanies skill development in sports, pulling together companies, schools, and trusted community organizations to create career pathways. My organization, Success Pathways Alliance, is already exploring this model in the greater Cleveland area through opportunities with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Urban League of Greater Cleveland. In 2019, the Cleveland Foundation and Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) contracted with us to better understand the career pathway landscape within CMSD, and examine available job opportunities for students upon graduating high school. Our initial research revealed that developing an exemplar career pathway model within an urban school district is a systemic issue, and would take a systems approach.

Our results led CMSD and the Cleveland Foundation to exploring a K-12 systems approach to developing career pathways, which mirrors the youth sports model for talent development by leveraging community partnerships, and exploring multiple opportunities and access points. Working with the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the Cleveland Cavaliers and various school districts, we are building a middle school-to-high school program that incorporates aspects of the youth sports apprenticeship model, building structured career pathways across multiple industry sectors for underserved youth in the Greater Cleveland area. We are developing programs in information technology, supply chain and logistics, professional sales, health care, and sports, and are excited about the possibilities of what this partnership will yield for youth in Cleveland as we emerge out of the pandemic.

It’s important to note that neither apprenticeship nor sports offers a perfect career pathways model. When it comes to recognizing the value of apprenticeship, employers and industry leaders can be reluctant to invest in broad, accessible training programs without a promise of worker retention. And the Registered Apprenticeship system also suffers from many of the same racial wage and opportunity disparities of the broader workforce, and needs to be intentional and focused to change those. The professional sports industry, as any fan knows, also struggles with equity issues, particularly when it comes to gender, and racial disparities between player and owner populations.

Where youth sports undoubtedly succeeds, however, is in its cultural relevance. By creating a talent development and training system that feeds into more than just the single occupation of professional athletes, it also attracts workers to the business side of the industry and creates fans who will be long-term consumers of their products. Sports appreciation is a foundational piece of American culture, and sports participation is widely lauded by individuals, families, and educational systems as a key to a well-rounded upbringing. If we could give apprenticeship and career exploration that same boost—and give students the guidance and resources for joyful discovery—we could develop a generation of innovators, workers, and winners.

Developed with the U.S. Department of Labor. Pursuant to the National Apprenticeship Act, the Department of Labor works to expand opportunities related to apprenticeship programs. This project has been funded, either wholly or in part, with Federal funds from the Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration under the contract number/work order DOL-OPS-16-A-0012/1605DC-18-F-00060. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement of same by the U.S. Government.

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