This year, we commemorate National Apprenticeship Week from Nov. 15-21. NAW was first observed in 2015 at a time when women made up just 9 percent of all registered apprentices, despite making up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. We have seen the percentage of women in apprenticeships continue to grow since 2015, but not quickly enough. Apprenticeships are a critical earn-while-you-learn models, providing pathways to good jobs for women and enabling them to gain new skills while earning wages.
Registered apprenticeships combine paid on-the-job training under the direction of an experienced mentor with classroom instruction resulting in an industry-recognized credential that certifies occupational proficiency. They have been a reliable pathway to the middle class for decades. With federal economic investments underway, the time to empower marginalized communities and women through greater access to apprenticeships is now.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered an economic crisis. In the early part of the pandemic, the unemployment rate for adult women was 15.5 percent — the highest rate ever recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began its data collection in 1948. Women’s disproportionate responsibilities at home coupled with our nation’s lack of care infrastructure forced three million women out of the labor force — with women of color bearing the brunt of job losses. Today, as more people return to work and schools reopen, there are 1.3 million fewer mothers who are employed than before the pandemic started, a loss of about 5.6 percent of working mothers in the labor market. Apprenticeships can serve as the pathway back to work outside the home for millions of women. They can provide the opportunity for women to learn new skills in high-paying jobs such as the construction industry, public administration, utilities, manufacturing, transportation and technology. Apprentices are paid as they embark on new career paths, further their education, and gain industry credentials in fields that are in demand.
Perhaps not surprisingly, female-dominated industries are more likely to be associated with lower wages, a fact that analysis controlling for education, experience and other human capital factors cannot fully explain. The U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau is working hard to expand access to registered apprenticeship programs and provide the support women need to flourish in pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. This year, the Women’s Bureau awarded $3.3 million through its Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations grant program to five community-based organizations working to expand pathways for women to enter and lead in historically male-dominated industries.
Since 2017, the Women’s Bureau has awarded nearly $12 million through WANTO to 22 community-based organizations. The grantees use funds to offer skills training programs to prepare women for careers in nontraditional fields; coach employers, unions, and workers on creating a successful environment for women to succeed in these careers; and set up support groups, peer-networks, and support services to improve retention.
WANTO grants support women’s inclusion in fields in which they have traditionally been underrepresented, including finance, technology, construction, manufacturing, energy and transportation. A portion of the grants provides funding for childcare, transportation, tuition costs and work-related equipment, the lack of which can all too often hinder a woman’s reentry into and advancement in the workforce.
To close the gender wage gap and better ensure economic security for families, it is imperative we remove barriers to high-pay, good quality jobs for women and build pathways through pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs.