This past spring, Washington became the first state in the nation to pass legislation specifically designed to help foster youth access apprenticeship opportunities, which offer a steady path to full-time employment in a highly-skilled trade.
Researchers have found that foster youth are likely to earn even less than other low-income youth living around them. Bill sponsor Sen. Kevin Ranker (D) declared his intent to expand opportunities for children facing “immense obstacles or lack the support of their families.”
Washington’s new law comes on the heels of Donald Trump signing an executive order in the summer of 2017 to increase the number of apprenticeships in the United States. The president called for doubling their annual funding to $200 million, an expansion that would be paid for by reducing support for other job training programs deemed ineffective.
While the president’s directive set no targets for exactly how many new apprenticeships there should be, labor experts from both sides of the aisle applauded the “earn-and-learn” expansion as needed and long overdue.
Apprenticeship programs are often sponsored by employers, trade groups or unions, and begin with a mix of on-the-job training and class instruction, during which time the apprentice earns a wage. Industries where apprenticeships are common include information technology, construction and carpentry, plumbing, and various health professions.
Over the course of an apprenticeship, which can last several years, participants gradually take on more complex parts of a trade, and eventually receive a certificate of completion.
Supporters point to studies that suggest individuals who complete apprenticeships earn a starting wage of more than $60,000 per year, and that nearly 90 percent of participants lock down employment when their apprenticeship ends. With millions of job vacancies across the country, and a national survey of CEOs reporting that most executives struggle to find qualified workers, the potential of apprenticeships offers some a rare glimmer of hope.
Foster youth represent one population in particular that could benefit from these new economic opportunities, including the 23,000 individuals who age-out of the foster care system every year. The statistics are grim. According to the National Foster Youth Initiative, foster youth have a less than 3 percent chance of earning a college degree in their lifetime, and only 50 percent of foster youth who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by age 24.
But how can foster youth take advantage of expanded apprenticeships? What could help make such opportunities more accessible to them?
According to Mike Pergamit, a labor economist whose research focuses on vulnerable youth, experts “still don’t really know what works” when it comes to designing effective youth employment programs. The picture looks even worse when it comes to foster youth; Pergamit says “there haven’t really been many evaluations” of employment programs targeting youth in foster care.
That said, Pergamit maintains there’s reason to think apprenticeships could be particularly beneficial to foster youth since they’re typically longer-length opportunities that come with high levels of mentorship. Stability and support, he says, can make all the difference.
One challenge for policymakers who might want to help target apprenticeships is that many foster youth have no desire to self-identify as someone with ties to the foster care system. One strategy for dealing with this stigma issue is to pursue strong data partnerships with government agencies.
In Washington state, for example, the Washington Student Achievement Council has partnered with their state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to better target resources and information toward foster youth looking to go to college or join the workforce.
“In secure ways DSHS sends us who is in foster care at the time at which they can maybe access the services so we know who they are,” said Becky Thompson, the director of student financial assistance at the Washington Student Achievement Council. “But it also requires a lot of outreach, so we provide training to social workers about resources that are available, since sometimes they can act as more of a trusted adviser.”
Some states also have foster care liaisons working in their public school districts; these liaisons can work with program-providers to help students learn about what’s available and how to take advantage of supports.
Other barriers that could impede foster youth from accessing apprenticeship opportunities include a lack of stable housing; a lack of reliable transportation to get to work; and lack of driver’s licenses, which can be a prerequisite for even getting hired.
Krishna Richardson-Daniels, the founder and director of A Bridge Forward, a nonprofit in Washington focused on youth aging out of the foster care system, says her group works to provide young people with subsidized metro cards so they can get to work and school. But some foster youth live in areas that lack quality public transit.
Obtaining a driver’s license, Richardson-Daniels says, can be one of the biggest and most poorly understood barriers for foster youth.
“Driver’s education is now privatized and not offered in the public school system, and those programs can cost anywhere from $300 to 500,” she said, noting there really aren’t many foster families willing to support those costs, and few nonprofit groups that have the bandwidth to take it on either.
“Seattle is the fastest growing city, we have some of the largest construction projects going on, but you cannot actually work in construction without having a driver’s license,” she explained. Construction is a field with a long history of providing apprenticeship opportunities.
A coalition of foster youth advocates have launched a national campaign called “Going Places” to try and tackle this driver’s license problem.
Aside from these barriers, given that apprenticeships are broadly understood to be something of a rigorous pre-employment opportunity, many people fail to realize how much work typically goes into preparing young people for apprenticeships. So-called “pre-apprenticeship” programs have become a popular strategy; these are short-term opportunities designed to help acclimate specific groups so they can enter and thrive in their apprenticeship program later on.
One promising pre-apprenticeship model designed to help disadvantaged youth (including but not exclusively foster youth) was developed by the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund in Philadelphia. Their pre-apprenticeship program runs for six weeks, and includes an opportunity to ensure all participants secure drivers’ licenses. Advocates say thoughtful, concerted outreach will be necessary to help older foster youth access apprenticeships, perhaps even more so than other disadvantaged populations, given the chaos they face if they age out of the system at 18 or 21. Experts suggest beginning targeted outreach in high school, several years before foster youth are set to age out.
“This is a unique population that might have some barriers that need additional support, and so having some very early outreach happening with high school counseling can be very effective,” Thompson said.
Another barrier can be whether the employers themselves are prepared to work with foster youth. One strategy is for policymakers to incentivize employers to get trained in the so-called Trauma Informed Approach, a professional development model which can help bosses better understand what their foster youth apprentices are dealing with, and how best to support them.
“Trauma is a big difference between foster youth and other disadvantaged youth,” said economist Pergamit. “Many opportunity youth have had various trauma, growing up in tough neighborhoods and witnessing all kinds of things, but foster youth by definition were the victim of some sort of abuse or neglect, and once they enter the foster system they’ve had even more disruption and turbulence beyond that.”
Representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor did not return multiple requests for comment, but advocates say if policymakers want to ensure that apprenticeships are made inclusive and accessible for foster youth, then careful programmatic design should not be left as an afterthought.
Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031.