We Need to Raise the Bar on Pre-Apprenticeships


Pre-apprenticeships can help workers from underrepresented populations become “apprenticeship ready.” But these programs lack consistent standards and expectations. JFF’s framework can help new or established programs become effective and equitable, opening new paths to apprenticeship and, ultimately, careers.

Published jul. 22, 2019

We need new entry points to valuable careers. Apprenticeship is one entry point that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in a number of industries. But for many youth and adults who lack credentials, basic skills, or connections, apprenticeships are often too advanced to serve as first steps to careers. For these individuals, high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs can be important on-ramps into apprenticeships and careers. However, most of these programs are one-offs, with questionable outcomes and no clear avenue to scale. 

JFF’s new pre-apprenticeship quality framework can provide direction for organizations interested in developing high-quality programs to prepare people for apprenticeships during this critical moment in our economy’s evolution.

Employers are having trouble filling their skilled labor needs and are becoming more open to new options for finding talent, and many are investing more in training workers on the job. Yet, despite a national unemployment rate that hovers at 3.7 percent, among the lowest rates in 50 years, the strong economy is not yielding the same career opportunities for everyone. In 2018, white workers garnered median weekly earnings of $916, compared with $694 for black workers, and $680 for Latinx workers. 

Those discrepancies are due to a number of causes, including differences in degree attainment (50 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 64 hold degrees, compared with 30 percent of blacks and 22 percent of Hispanics in the same age group), varying levels of access to professional networks, and bias (hiring discrimination against blacks has remained unchanged for 25 years).

Registered Apprenticeship (RA) programs can provide a wide range of diverse workers with new opportunities. But many people, especially women and people of color, have limited opportunities to work and receive training as apprentices because they don’t have clear pathways to learn about, prepare for, or successfully apply to programs built on this relatively unknown, and rigorous, earn-and-learn model. 

A pre-apprenticeship, or apprenticeship-readiness, program can offer that foundational experience. These programs provide training, support services, and career navigation assistance to help people gain the skills and awareness they need to enter and succeed in apprenticeships and, ultimately, careers. 

Implemented well and at scale, these programs have the potential to drive greater diversity and equity in apprenticeships and throughout the workforce.

Why We Need Equity in Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships can make a difference. Over the past decade, these earn-and-learn programs have become increasingly common entry points into well-paying careers in industries ranging from manufacturing to health care and technology.

Despite their promise, apprenticeships have their own barriers and equity challenges. For instance, Registered Apprenticeships are:

  • Highly selective: People from underrepresented groups who try to pursue apprenticeship opportunities will often encounter the same barriers when pursuing apprenticeship opportunities as they do when seeking access to highly sought-after jobs. 
  • More likely to accept applicants who already have knowledge of or aptitude in an industry: Individuals who don’t have backgrounds in specific industries would need preliminary support to build and demonstrate their qualifications for apprenticeships in those industries. 
  • Likely to feature advanced academic coursework and technical content: Individuals with low levels of educational attainment may need additional preparation to apply for and succeed in an apprenticeship program. 
  • Not likely to be well known: In some cases, only individuals with personal connections to apprenticeship programs will be aware of opportunities. For those who are unfamiliar, the application process can be complicated and difficult to navigate.

Pre-apprenticeship programs can provide the training and education that people from underrepresented communities need to enter and succeed in apprenticeship programs.

Pre-apprenticeships have proliferated across the country because workforce and training specialists recognize that apprenticeship-readiness programs provide a way to connect diverse populations with apprenticeships and career opportunities. Yet, a lack of consistent standards and expectations prevents pre-apprenticeships from fulfilling their potential.  

A lack of consistent standards and expectations prevents pre-apprenticeships from fulfilling their potential.

A Need for Standards

The design, quality, and outcomes of today’s pre-apprenticeship programs are all over the map, and individuals, apprenticeship sponsors, and employers don’t have a straightforward way to understand the value that any particular program provides. Although many state apprenticeship offices—such as those in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Oregon—are beginning to recognize pre-apprenticeship programs, the requirements for and benefits of recognition vary widely. 

In our work with pre-apprenticeship programs over the past 10 years, JFF has seen that, at their best, these programs provide pathways to gainful employment for people who have traditionally been shut out of opportunities. Here are some examples of our efforts:

  • We currently provide pre-apprenticeship design and implementation support for STRIVE International’s Future Leaders program, which offers training and support to justice-involved youth ages 18 to 24, with the goal of helping them succeed in the labor market. JFF’s work focuses on STRIVE sub-grantees in Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Yonkers.
  • In 2017, JFF worked with YouthBuild USA and numerous sites across the country to support the creation of pre-apprenticeship options for YouthBuild’s Construction Plus programs in a range of industries, including health care, IT, hospitality, retail, and logistics.
  • Over the past decade, JFF has supported the development of the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3), an apprenticeship-readiness program that unions offer in partnership with community-based organizations across the Unites States. JFF has facilitated the addition of a gender lens to the curriculum, sponsored community-based organizations in their bids to become approved deliverers of the MC3 programming, and worked with partners in Detroit to help launch that city’s Access for All program. NABTU (North America’s Building Trades Unions), long a leader in the Registered Apprenticeship field, developed and continues to lead MC3 efforts.
  • With the support of Salesforce, JFF is promoting and expanding pre-apprenticeship programs for IT occupations, creating pre-apprenticeship pathways for young adults who are out of school and out of work, and supporting pre-apprenticeship as an option within a broader set of work-based learning opportunities.

A Framework for Pre-Apprenticeships

Creating a consistent set of standards for pre-apprenticeship programs, while still ensuring that individual programs have the flexibility they need to best serve specific populations and industries, will elevate the ability of these programs to be effective on-ramps to quality careers in a way that can be taken to scale. 

To support this vision, JFF has developed a pre-apprenticeship framework that identifies six aspirational characteristics of equitable, high-quality programs, with a set of core elements under each.

If you currently offer a pre-apprenticeship program, we hope you’ll use this framework to look for ways to continue to grow and improve the quality of your offering. We would also love to learn about what you are doing—please let us know by taking this brief survey.

If you’re thinking of setting up a pre-apprenticeship, you can use the six characteristics highlighted in our framework as guideposts that inform the way you configure your program. You may also want to read our report Getting Started with Pre-Apprenticeship: Partnerships

We need more on-ramps to good careers. We need options that quickly address employers’ most pressing needs. And we need to find new ways to identify, assess, and hire talent, because the current approach is leaving good workers behind. By developing and honing pre-apprenticeships, we can make apprenticeships and other workforce systems more effective and equitable, creating greater access to opportunities and good careers for everyone.