Still reeling from the pandemic’s blow to jobs and the economy, the state of California is set to spend heavily on training young people who tend to have the most fragile links to the workforce: youth who’ve grown up homeless, in foster care or on probation.
In the state budget deal approved late last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and lawmakers committed $65 million to expand apprenticeship opportunities in a range of industries, from construction to restaurant work, health care and hospitality. Details are being worked out in pending legislation that will expand existing programs that offer paid apprenticeships. Those opportunities will be tailored specifically for state residents ages 16 to 24 who are low-income, foster youth, women, people of color, and the formerly incarcerated.
Robert Sainz, executive director of the Montebello, California-based nonprofit New Ways to Work, called the state’s new investment in youth apprenticeships a “tremendous opportunity” for those living with the impacts of childhood trauma, poverty and growing up in government custody.
“We know that if they don’t get a higher education degree or some post-graduate high school training program, they are going to struggle later in life,” Sainz said.
Paid apprenticeships are typically sponsored by employers, trade groups or unions, blending some classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Many programs run for three or four years, and by the end, apprentices are awarded a certificate that can qualify them for well-paid positions and job security. Known as “earn and learn,” such programs are prevalent in the construction and building trades but have expanded to include some nontraditional industries, like health care, information technology, cybersecurity, hospitality and civil service. California — a state at constant risk of devastating wildfires — also boasts a robust apprenticeship program that has trained thousands of firefighters over the past four decades, one of the nation’s largest programs in any field.
Over the past decade, the number of apprenticeships nationwide has increased by 64%, fueled in part by increased government investments to help companies deal with a shortage of skilled workers. Three years into the coronavirus pandemic, federal and state officials are continuing to fund apprenticeship programs as a recovery strategy for low-income communities hit hard by COVID-19.
These apprenticeships offer a pathway to a career with a solid income, without incurring significant educational debts associated with years of schooling. Employers, meanwhile, gain skilled employees who are familiar with the company after training on the job.
The pathway can provide access to middle-class stability for those who might otherwise face financial uncertainty.
Rafael Alvarado is among them. Four years ago, he knew he wanted more opportunities than his job as a supervisor at a South Los Angeles Walmart could provide. Driving to work every day, he passed by construction sites and enjoyed watching as the buildings grew to standing.
But it wasn’t until he enrolled at EntreNous Youth Empowerment Services — a group offering “pre-apprenticeship” readiness programs — that he understood how to access opportunities in the construction field. Alvarado is now a fourth-level carpenter apprentice on his way to becoming a journeyman, where he can make $56 an hour.
He’s worked on high-profile projects like an opulent hotel in downtown L.A. and a new transit line at the airport. The benefits are tangible. He has made more money in the past four years than his father has made in 27 years in his job, Alvarado said. Now, at 26, he is a newly minted homeowner. The added income made it possible for Alvarado to be approved for a loan to purchase in nearby Fontana.
“One of the biggest joys about my job is that I know in 15 or 20 years, I can drive by a big building, show my kids, and be able to tell them that’s something that your dad helped build,” Alvarado said.
Overcoming barriers to work
Prior to his 2018 election as governor of the state with the world’s fifth largest economy, Newsom vowed to create 500,000 apprenticeships by 2029, a centerpiece of an economic plan to address income inequality and an aging workforce in many key industries.
But young people have often been left out of the effort. In 2021, the average age of an apprentice in California was 33 years old, according to a recent report from the state’s Division of Apprenticeship Standards.
Workforce experts and government officials say the low numbers are due to a variety of factors. They include legal requirements that bar those under age 18 from participating, a lack of awareness among high schoolers about opportunities in skilled trades, and unwillingness to commit to an intensive training program at a young age.
Young people who grow up in foster care or who have been homeless face other barriers, including the inability to pay for introductory enrollment costs that can amount to hundreds of dollars, Sainz said. Other barriers include the cost of tools, equipment and transportation, especially for programs that require trainees to travel long distances to worksites.
In recent years, however, California has reformed its work-readiness offerings to better serve homeless youth and those leaving the state’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. Last year, the state successfully petitioned the federal government for a waiver that allows for more flexible spending of workforce dollars in the state. Under the waiver, California can fund training programs that better match the lives and circumstances of young people who are on probation or have grown up in foster care, enabling them to more easily access job training, vocational education programs, coaching and internships even if they are also attending school.
Under California’s current plan, workforce programs statewide will be able to offer free enrollment, pay union dues, and provide case management and mental health care. These expanded supports are tailored to match existing programs that have been successful by offering trainees supportive services.
Jennifer Gilmore, executive director of the San Diego-based Kitchens for Good, said about 20% of the people who participate in her culinary and hospitality apprenticeship program are young adults disconnected from school or work. About 85% of all participants have come in contact with the justice system. The organization receives referrals from about 35 county agencies, including the juvenile courts.
Before they start the 20-month training, aspiring cooks go through an intake process to identify barriers that might prevent them from completing the program, which includes classroom instruction and a paid restaurant job.
“You can have the best knife skills in the world, but if you’re dealing with child care issues or housing, it’s going to be tough to succeed,” Gilmore said.
All participants also receive continual “soft skills” training, such as how to communicate well with bosses. That’s important for many young people who lack job experience. For example, a young person may decide not to show up to work at all after waking up late.
“What we’ve found with the younger population is that a situation can go from ‘oops’ to an emergency really fast,” she said.
Despite the recent investment of public funds, Sara Silva, co-executive director of the EntreNous Youth Empowerment Services, said the state needs to do more — such as offering short-term work readiness courses and supportive services — if it wants to effectively serve thousands of young people from under-resourced communities.
Silva’s Compton-based nonprofit prepares youth to work in construction, cooking and hospitality apprenticeships by providing child care and transportation, as well as some academic classes needed to succeed on the job. Students in the construction program are introduced to 43 different career options in building trades, as well as hands-on experience helping build houses with a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
“This isn’t a one-stop process,” Silva said. “Building a successful apprenticeship takes time and intensive work with a young person. There’s a lot of social services that need to happen ahead of time before we even get to the application process for an apprenticeship.”
She also notes that many young people from the foster care and juvenile justice systems often need more time to complete programs, or they may not be ready to start an apprenticeship right away.
“In my experience working with young people over the last 10 years,” she said, “the trajectory is not often a straight line.”