How Registered Apprenticeship Led Me From Black History to Black Opportunity

In 2006, as an apprentice construction craft laborer in Milwaukee, I helped build one of the I-43 underpasses on Fond Du Lac Avenue. The bridge is well known throughout Wisconsin for the murals that adorn it, including one that tells the story of a man named Joshua Glover. Glover, a Black man enslaved in Missouri, escaped from slavery in 1852 and made his way to Wisconsin, a free state. Two years later, he was caught and arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant a return to slavery, a return to the South for trial, or one of many worse fates. Glover was being held at the Milwaukee County Jailhouse when, as the mural depicts, abolitionists from all around southeastern Wisconsin, led by a man named Sherman Booth, stormed the jail and helped Glover escape to the Underground Railroad. He eventually found freedom in Canada.

This story of a Black man achieving freedom, displayed on the side of a bridge that this Black man constructed, makes me proud of Wisconsin and strengthens my passion for advancing the promise of Registered Apprenticeship. But as we celebrate Black History Month, this story serves as a lingering reminder of the challenges people of color still have today. Glover sought a pathway to freedom; today’s Black learners and workers seek, as I did, pathways to a family-sustaining career with livable wages. Today’s obstacles, however, are far more insidious and disguised, and can impact people’s access to opportunities to good jobs, good wages, and the economic mobility and dignity that accompany these opportunities. Apprenticeship has expanded in recent years to new industries and occupations, and now includes a broader, more diverse group of employers and apprentices. But the bias (or implicit bias) that pervades our greater culture plays out in the apprenticeship system, too.

We have a unique opportunity to focus on these challenges by implementing purposeful and intentional policies and practices to make a difference—and to track our progress. Many employers, labor unions, sponsors, and other stakeholders are already doing this, but we need to encourage many more to examine their practices and consider more intentional recruitment, hiring, and advancement practices to reflect the demographics of their communities and to increase access and opportunities for all Americans.

A year ago, while working as the state director of apprenticeship in Wisconsin, I joined a JFF webinar to talk about race and Registered Apprenticeship. At that time, many institutions were undergoing a racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder, and we had a lively discussion about how important it is for employers to begin to be honest and open with themselves while looking in their organizations and asking how they can do diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) better. This conversation led to one realization: the nation’s top workforce program needed to change.

Today, I’m leading a new and important project at JFF as director of our National Innovation Hub for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in Registered Apprenticeship, where we and a range of partners will be working hard to increase equitable opportunities and outcomes in apprenticeship for all.

As of this month, the overall Black workers’ unemployment rate is double the white unemployment rate. When we narrow the focus to apprenticeship, we see that Black apprentices remain statistically underrepresented, making up just 10.7 percent of new apprentices nationwide while accounting for 12.4 percent of the population.

While 10.7 percent meets and exceeds affirmative action standards for apprenticeship programs, a closer look reveals that completion rates for Black apprentices are significantly lower than for any other race or ethnicity, and this drives down overall participation.

When Black apprentices do complete the program, their average hourly wages at $26.02 are lower than the wages for members of any other racial or ethnic group. For women, the average hourly wages at completion are even lower at $22.99, with the average hourly wage at completion for Black women even less than $22.99.

This is not just a color-of-your-skin problem. These barriers to access, opportunity, and equity also impact women, people with disabilities, people with criminal records, and other groups who are underrepresented in success throughout our society. Wage disparities and occupational segregation cluster many people—including people of color, women of all backgrounds, and other unrepresented folks—in the lower-rung jobs of apprenticeships.

Employers must look at these disparities as they work to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within their companies and apprenticeship programs. When it comes to hiring, are they recruiting diverse workers deeply from the communities they serve? Are they reaching out to HBCUs to attract new and untapped talent? Are their hiring practices conducive to attracting or retaining Black people, women of all backgrounds, and others who are inadequately represented in apprenticeship?

Hiring alone isn’t enough, either. Employers need to look at their company culture, policies for advancement and promotion, and wage distribution to ensure they are not perpetuating the problems. Do they create a welcoming environment for people from other countries, or other zip codes? Are they providing upskilling and advancement opportunities to all workers in a fair and unbiased manner? A year ago, at that webinar, I heard many employers and partners promise to take action to build DEIA in apprenticeship. Today, as the director of JFF’s new National Innovation Hub for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in Registered Apprenticeship, I’m asking them to follow through—with our help.

Employers who are interested in taking this step can apply for direct support from JFF or one of our Innovation Hub partners:

  • The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding
  • Apprenticeship Carolina
  • The Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University (CMSI)
  • Chicago Women in the Trades (CWIT)
  • Donna Lenhoff Associates, EEO law firm
  • The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Intelligent Partnerships (IP), inclusion design consultants
  • OneTen
  • UnidosUS

Employers can also make their commitments public by signing the Business Pledge to Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in Registered Apprenticeship.

My passion for advancing the promise of apprenticeship comes from my own personal experience as a craft laborer, and my belief in the need for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access comes from my appreciation for people like Joshua Glover, whose story inspires me and my colleagues at JFF to remember the challenges from the past as we look toward strengthening the future. The nation’s apprenticeship system can do for so many what it did for me: provide a terrific career with good wages. During this Black History Month, let’s commit ourselves again to giving all American workers the access and opportunities to learn and advance in the world of work through the promise of Registered Apprenticeship.

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