Across the United States, youth face an obstacle course as they attempt to transition from high school to a career. The steps for finding a good job after graduation can be difficult to navigate, leaving many young people stuck in cycles of unemployment and low-wage work.
To remedy this, there is a growing movement to develop quality youth apprenticeship programs that start in high school and offer experiential learning opportunities across a range of industries. Typically, youth apprentices spend part of each week in the workplace and the rest at high school. In other countries, this is institutionalized as a formal “dual education system” that combines classroom instruction with experiential learning.
Earlier the month, Brookings Metro and Ascend Indiana convened state leaders from Indiana, Alabama, and Colorado to discuss how policy can scale earn-and-learn opportunities like youth apprenticeships—moving beyond smaller, grant-funded programs into a full network deeply embedded in the education system. (Watch the full event video below, or on YouTube here.)
A highlight of the first day was hearing from high school youth apprentices at Roche Diagnostics, a biotechnology company in Indianapolis. When asked what our country’s leaders can do for youth after a tumultuous adolescence during a global pandemic, one apprentice on the panel, Kinaya Hines, said:
“Don’t forget about us. Don’t forget that we have ideas. Just know that a lot has happened, a lot is going on. And it can, sometimes, have youth in an iffy light, sometimes. I think it is important to know that we want to help the generation above us and below us. We have ambitions as well. And it’s very important…for the youth to have a voice, and to know that we can be influential in this world, even at a young age.”
What is a youth apprenticeship, and why start in high school?
Apprenticeships provide long-term, paid, work-based learning opportunities and structured educational curricula that ensure the learner gains education and hands-on experience in an occupation. Compared to peer countries, apprenticeships in the U.S. are narrowly confined to a small set of industries (typically in the trades such as construction), and the average age is much older (28 in the U.S. compared to 17 in Switzerland, for example).
The three apprentices on this months’s panel participate in Indianapolis’ Modern Apprenticeship program, developed locally by EmployIndy (the local workforce development board), Ascend Indiana, local employers, and others.1 Apprentices in the program work in fields such as health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, and financial services.
To date, 78 students and 40 employers have participated in the first two cohorts of the Modern Apprenticeship program. More than 90% of students identify as people of color, 60% as women, and 33% as coming from low-income backgrounds. More than 300 students have expressed interest in participating.
Hines started her apprenticeship at Roche at age 15, and she said she was surprised how much she learned about the business environment. “[There were] lots of different aspects that I never thought I would end up in,” she said. “I was very surprised that I was accepted very quickly, I was trained, I was treated as an asset to the team.”
Her colleague Uriah Khoury, also a senior in high school with ambitions to become an endocrinologist, appreciated how different the apprenticeship was from school and how it offered him more freedom. “[Apprentices] are making a difference in the companies that they are working in and actually doing meaningful work, not just busy work,” he said.
Another apprentice, Aracely Avila Hermosillo, still a junior in high school, was initially attracted to the apprenticeship because it allowed her to juggle getting paid work experience, graduating high school with an associate degree, and devoting time to community service. She was struck by all the skills she learned during her apprenticeship.
“I’m surprised how many skills I have used, like OKRs, lean, continuous improvement,” she said. “And all these skills that I probably wouldn’t have learned until I’m way older. Simple skills, like how to talk to people formally, using Google calendars, scheduling meetings professionally.”
Hermosillo currently apprentices remotely for Roche as a business operations associate, with a team based in Costa Rica—a factor that allows her to use her bilingual language skills.
Key takeaways from the panel
The youth apprentices on the panel shared several other insights, including:
- Apprenticeships can help students make more informed college choices and make them more competitive college applicants. Rather than seeing the apprenticeship as an alternative to college, all three youth apprentices on the panel had plans to attend college after high school. They appreciated that the apprenticeship helped them make more informed choices about college and their career.
Hines said her work experience made her more competitive for a scholarship: “I think people underestimate how much this program means to college, and what it means to get into that. For me, this program was able to prove to colleges that I have not only great value, but I also bring some experience as well, so they wanted to invest in me, in turn. So, I get to go to college for free.”
- There are barriers and challenges to working and going to school. The panelists said that the most challenging aspect of the apprenticeship was balancing their schedule and learning effective time management as they negotiated school, work, and extracurricular activities. They noted that their school counselors, teachers, and supervisors were essential for achieving the flexibility they needed. They also noted that transportation can be a barrier, and that the apprenticeship put them out of their comfort zone, so they found opportunities such as mock interviews and resume preparation helpful.
- Leaders need to raise awareness on apprenticeships. The youth apprentices wanted to see these types of opportunities become better-known among their peers. They felt many high school students would find them appealing, especially the fact that the apprenticeships are paid and offer networking opportunities. “While getting paid, you’re learning invaluable experiences while gaining work experience,” Khoury said. “It gives you a head start on your career, and you have more control, more networking, more connections.”
Apprenticeships allow youth to cultivate a professional identity and sense of impact
Above all, the youth on the panel wanted the adults in the room to understand how their apprenticeships were a transformational opportunity and gave them a sense of possibility.
“It really made me want to pursue my dreams,” Hines said. “It showed that there are so many things that are possible. It showed that I can be a part of change in many different places. So, I really am surprised at how not only I, but all the apprentices on here were able to be an example of change.”
Hermosillo added: “I advocate for the youth a lot. I attended a lot of workshops, like interrupting racism for children. And I do see, hopefully, change in the future. I do hate seeing the news every day, saying the same thing every day, repeat, repeat. Again, and over again. Just because there’s no change. No actions are occurring. And I feel like we have the potential to make the change.”
Acknowledgements: The author is grateful to Ascend Indiana and EmployIndy for providing feedback on this piece. Ascend Indiana is an initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, which is committed to making Indiana a place of economic opportunity for all. EmployIndy is the workforce development board in Indianapolis.
- Note: EmployIndy is a USDOL Registered Sponsor and is still in the process of registering the Modern Apprenticeship program apprenticeships with their employer partners. They have registered these occupations: Business Operations Associate, IT Support Technician, Junior Coder, Marketing Coordinator, Project Coordinator, and Staff Accountant.