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Opportunity Youth Pre-Apprenticeship Framework Component 2: Alignment with Skills Sought by Local Employers and High-Quality Apprenticeship Programs

May 10, 2021

High-quality pre-apprenticeship programs help opportunity youth build skills that align with the needs of employers and that are required in apprenticeships. Too often, pre-apprenticeship programs do not deliver the appropriate in-demand skills and graduates are left without access to the apprenticeships that can provide access to career pathways and family-sustaining wages.

Pre-apprenticeship programs should support participants in acquiring employability skills such as teamwork, written communication, problem solving, initiative, flexibility, and reliability.

Ensuring that participants gain employability skills is especially important for opportunity youth who may have limited work experience. Programs should design their curriculum with input from employers to address and provide the critical personal and workplace skills needed across industries. JFF recommends that providers design daily activities that give young people the opportunity to practice and reflect on employability skills. This could include collaborative group projects that give young adults the opportunity to practice teamwork and communication skills or role playing and simulations that help young adults understand how to have agency and how to self-advocate in the workplace. Employers can be brought into these simulations to highlight the importance of these skills, which are particularly important in the future of work context as they are least likely to be automated.

Programs need to help participants acquire sufficient skills and academic credentials for entry into a high-quality apprenticeship or an entry-level job with advancement potential in the industry.

In addition to providing participants with the necessary employability skills, programs should include the provision of academic credentials in their program design. This includes providing opportunities for high school equivalency and diploma attainment and access to certifications that can bolster skill development and increase a participant’s readiness for pathways beyond pre-apprenticeship training. Programs should work with employers and apprenticeship providers to determine which certifications are most advantageous. Programs should also ensure that the academic credentials and certifications they offer will help opportunity youth beyond entry-level employment and support their long-term career advancement.

Effective programs align curriculum with a range of training and employment pathways.

Successful pre-apprenticeships include curriculum that connects participants to a range of training and employment pathways. This is especially important for opportunity youth who may still be developing their long-term career and education goals and can benefit from having a range of options to explore. This approach can help young people determine whether Registered Apprenticeship is the best next step and if not, what other pathways can meet their immediate and long-term needs. It also helps them gain critical foundational skills that can be used in a range of post-program options.

The Competency Model Clearinghouse is a good resource for both employability and industry-specific skills. For example, the Fundamentals of Health Care Competency Model is a tool that supports occupational mobility and the development of transferable skills across allied health pathways. In addition, contextualizing curriculum with industry specific skills, competencies, and terminology can accelerate learning and skills. JFF recommends that programs engage employers to get feedback on curriculum design and content as well as pair curriculum with employer presentations and job shadowing to make the contextualization of academic skills real and relevant.

Component in Action

Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP)


The strongest pre-apprenticeship programs design instruction and training to reach underserved populations.

It is critical that pre-apprenticeship programs serving opportunity youth are designed to reach all learners. There are a number of strategies to do this, including literacy circles, collaborative group work, and projects, all of which can help opportunity youth take charge of their own learning. Online learning platforms such as Khan Academy can be used simultaneously with these strategies to address any skills gaps.

Programs should support participants in setting long-term goals with interim benchmarks and milestones so they understand the progress they are making, especially when their ultimate goals may take multiple months or even years to achieve. Interim benchmarks and incentives help foster persistence on what can be a very tough but worthwhile journey.

JFF recommends that programs apply a universal design for learning (UDL) approach to pre-apprenticeship program instruction, training, and assessment. This helps providers design and deliver content in a way that is accessible to all learners and that meets the needs of different learning styles. Some strategies for implementing a UDL approach include:

  • Building in opportunities for collaboration and engagement with peers and instructors to support learning and processing of information.
  • Delivering information and content through a range of modalities to meet the diverse needs of tactile, visual, and auditory learners. This includes using multimedia, visual aids, recorded content, and hands-on learning and instruction activities.
  • Using e-portfolios to offer options for documenting skills and knowledge. Strong examples of this come from CAST, a leader in the UDL field. In partnership with YouthBuild, CAST has designed STEMfolio for opportunity youth interested in pursuing STEM careers. Leveraging this technology, CAST co-designed the IMTfolio with WRTP and JFF to support apprentices and pre-apprentices with learning disabilities in the Industrial Manufacturing Technician Registered Apprenticeship program.
  • Incorporating opportunities for reflection to help participants process information and demonstrate their understanding of the content.

Finally, high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs for opportunity youth should provide productive and inclusive learning environments for participants. JFF recommends that programs embed a healing-centered approach to program design. This is critical for opportunity youth who have experienced trauma resulting from systemic racism, abuse, neglect, poverty, and community violence. Although program staff are likely not clinicians, applying this lens can support the long-term success of participants within the pre-apprenticeship program and beyond. JFF recommends that programs invest in professional development and learning to support these efforts and partner with community partners to address issues of trauma in a way that is informed and sensitive to the needs of participants. A recent National Fund for Workforce Solutions guide, A Trauma-Informed Approach to Workforce, provides foundational information, guidance, and examples of workforce development organizations and employers who have implemented trauma-informed approaches.

The Importance of Integrating a Trauma Lens in Pre-Apprenticeship Training

Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances. Trauma from systemic racism, abuse, neglect, poverty, and community violence can have lasting adverse effects on an individual’s functioning and well-being. Trauma has become even more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic and can impact opportunity youth and their ability to persist in pre-apprenticeship training.

Applying a trauma-informed or healing-centered lens does not mean that staff diagnose trauma or other behavioral health conditions. It does advocate taking a holistic approach, acknowledging we do not live, work, and learn in a vacuum, and helps pre-apprenticeships build supportive environments that are safe, inclusive, and productive for all participants. Using a trauma and healing-centered lens means creating ways to help participants build trust, skills for managing emotions, and a sense of self-worth in program systems and practices. Healing-centered practices can be especially impactful because they employ an asset-based approach that focuses on the strengths of young people and supports their agency in their own well-being and care. This redefines trauma so that rather than being defined as victims, young people are empowered and grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has developed six principles of a trauma-informed approach that can be useful in program design. They include safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice, and choice; and cultural, historical, and gender issues. A trauma-informed approach includes having clear program guidelines in place; ensuring consistency of expectations, activities, and feedback; explicitly highlighting the impacts of structural racism and gender inequities; and offering opportunities for reflection. These align with inclusive best practices that benefit all participants.