Together We Can Increase Black Participation in Apprenticeship

As we honor Black History Month, an honest look at our racist past reveals a more equitable path for the future of apprenticeship and workforce development in our country.

Published feb. 25, 2021


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More than 50 years ago, the obstacles to boosting Black participation in apprenticeship were no secret: Openly racist and exclusionary policies kept Black workers from training in skilled trades.

Getting industry leaders to admit to the problem, however, was a different story. While civil rights advocates pointed to “discrimination by unions, employers, and apprenticeship agencies” and “the paucity” of Black apprentices, the apprenticeship establishment was likely to emphasize “the absence of qualified. . . applicants” and “relative progress made in spite of great difficulties.”

The economists who noted those conflicting accounts were writing in 1966, but the problem, and the dialogue surrounding it, remains relevant today. Black workers continue to face significant participation barriers and wage disparities within the Registered Apprenticeship system, earning almost $12 less per hour than their white counterparts. These disparities are not only inequitable; they’re contradictory to the promise of apprenticeship as a pathway to good jobs with fair wages for people of all backgrounds.

Apprenticeship is a vital and proven workforce development solution that leads to family-supporting careers. Legal discrimination and exclusionary policies no longer hold us back from creating a more equitable and diverse apprenticeship system. But a lack of systemic purpose and intentionality has prevented us from making significant progress on the issues identified in 1966.

JFF and our partners are committed to changing this pattern in the 21st century through intentional, focused action designed to create apprenticeship opportunities for members of underrepresented populations, specifically women and people of color. JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning champions apprenticeship, and with support from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and other key stakeholders, we are developing and expanding a more equitable system of apprenticeships that will break the cycle of exclusion and wage disparity.

JFF and our partners are committed to changing this pattern in the 21st century through intentional, focused action designed to create apprenticeship opportunities for underrepresented populations.

A History of Inequality

The lack of progress on racial equity in apprenticeship is at once both deeply troubling and not surprising, given the history of structural racism in the United States. The nation’s foundational apprenticeship model was racist and exclusionary. In the 18th century, while white American apprentices like George Washington (surveyor), Benjamin Franklin (printer), and Paul Revere (silversmith) were celebrated for pursuing extensive training to become skilled tradesmen, Black and Indigenous people who were called “apprentices” were in fact enslaved laborers.

After the Civil War, a system of “indentures of apprenticeship” emerged, theoretically to advance newly freed Black Americans. But throughout the 19th century, stark differences remained in the apprenticeships offered to Black Americans and their white peers. Many work opportunities for newly freed workers were governed by “Black Codes,” a series of highly restrictive laws that mimicked the conditions of slavery. Labor “contracts” included residency requirements stipulating that Black workers had to live on their white employers’ land. They also prohibited social interactions without permission and allowed corporal punishment. Apprenticeship was equally insidious; as the University of Virginia’s library archive notes, Black children—sometimes as young as 3 years old—were placed into indentures of apprenticeship for decades, often without the consent of their parents.

In the 20th century, apprenticeship was formalized in the United States via the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937, also known as the Fitzgerald Act. The law was created to provide protections for apprentices, and it established the labor standards, national certification standards, and safeguards for apprentices’ welfare that a work-based learning program must adopt in order to be considered a Registered Apprenticeship. However, Black workers were still subject to racist and exclusionary policies, such as Jim Crow laws, upheld by states and cities, employers, and labor unions, reflecting the racist views of the times. As a result, they were still significantly underrepresented in most apprenticeships after the Apprenticeship Act was passed. When a Black worker was admitted into an apprenticeship, it was most commonly for a low-wage, less-skilled position.

After World War II, Registered Apprenticeship programs expanded from the manufacturing, construction, and utilities industries to the public safety and health care industries. But Black workers still had difficulty accessing these opportunities.

A major factor contributing to the irrational, wasteful and socially harmful operation of the nation’s apprenticeship training programs is the color discrimination and racial exclusion which characterize apprenticeship training programs in major sectors of the economy in the North as well as in the South.

Herbert Hill, the labor director for the NAACP, in 1962’s Racial Discrimination in the Nation’s Apprenticeship Training Programs

In 1962’s Racial Discrimination in the Nation’s Apprenticeship Training Programs, Herbert Hill, the labor director for the NAACP, wrote: “A major factor contributing to the irrational, wasteful and socially harmful operation of the nation’s apprenticeship training programs is the color discrimination and racial exclusion which characterize apprenticeship training programs in major sectors of the economy in the North as well as in the South.”

Discrimination in apprenticeship training programs had broader implications, as well. Hill wrote, it “is also greatly responsible for the fact that for the past three years [Black] unemployment has been almost consistently two to three times greater than the total unemployment rate and that non-white workers today make up a very large portion of the hard core permanently unemployed group in American society.”

More than half a century later, Black workers still do not have access to the same opportunities. The Federal Register reported that in the 2015 fiscal year, workers who identified as “Black or African American” represented 12.3 percent of the national labor force and 14.1 percent of the labor force without a college degree, but they made up only 10 percent of all apprenticeship enrollees. In addition, DOL data show that the shares of Black and Hispanic people in apprenticeships are higher in low-wage occupations than they are in high-wage occupations .

How to Move Forward

Fortunately, this is starting to change: Many apprenticeship stakeholders and policymakers, including the DOL and state apprenticeship agencies, are taking on the challenges of equitable access and opportunities. Here are some examples of intentional policies and practices to advance equal access to apprenticeship:

  • When Aon, a global professional services firm in Chicago, began its apprenticeship program in 2017, the company collaborated with the City Colleges of Chicago to recruit a diverse apprenticeship pool that reflected the demographics of the community. The program has helped Aon build a diverse talent pipeline of highly skilled professionals while providing apprentices with advanced education and work experience. By removing some of the traditional barriers to entry-level employment, Aon is contributing to local workforce development and cultivating talent from across the Chicago metro area.
  • Techtonic, a software development company in the greater Denver area, launched one of the first DOL-approved apprenticeships in software development. In six years, the company has built a program that consistently recruits and trains a diverse group of apprentices in a predominantly white industry by partnering with local community-based organizations, workforce boards, and educational institutions.
  • North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) sponsors comprehensive apprenticeship readiness programs that provide a gateway for local residents—focusing on women, people of color, and transitioning veterans—to access Registered Apprenticeship programs.
  • After years of challenges surrounding African Americans’ access to joining labor union apprenticeship programs, a more promising recent history shows a focused effort by national labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO, NABTU, machinists, and local labor councils to improve racial and gender diversity among their ranks through active outreach and programs focused on women and other underrepresented populations. These exceptionally strong union apprenticeships have always been at the forefront of good jobs and good wages and are now leading on outreach, readiness, and recruiting from underserved communities to increase access to apprenticeship and level the playing field on wages.
  • In JFF’s recent webinar on Race and Registered Apprenticeship, Joshua Johnson, the state director of Wisconsin Apprenticeship Systems, highlighted Wisconsin’s efforts to increase participation in Registered Apprenticeship by women and people of color. He credited the state’s employers for continued progress and encouraged them to be even more intentional. “With no program in the nation as its rival, Registered Apprenticeship is poised and perfectly positioned to get ahead of the curve on this initiative of economic equity in America,” Johnson said. “We need our employers to support this work.”
  • At a federal level, the proposed reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Act includes a focus on “nontraditional populations,” including Black workers. The proposal specifically encourages employer participation and recruitment for individuals facing barriers to employment.

This history of American apprenticeship highlights the inextricable link between modern programs and the racist past that still resounds today. If we are to finally turn from this dark history and make good on the promise of apprenticeships for all Americans, we must openly acknowledge the past precedent that created this disparity and push forward on these recent glimmers of progress with fervor: partnering with stakeholders, advocating with policymakers, and creating intentional and sustainable pathways to equitable advancement. The future of millions of Americans depends on it.


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