In summary

Expanding apprenticeship will create new opportunities for women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, workers facing barriers and both in-school and out-of-school youths for whom the opportunity cost of higher education is simply too high.

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By Natalie Palugyai, Special to CalMatters

Natalie Palugyai is secretary of the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency.

Right after graduating from high school, Jen Lewis enlisted in the U.S. Army, where she served as a helicopter mechanic, was airborne qualified, and deployed to Iraq during the Gulf War. 

On returning to civilian life, she found the transition difficult, as do many veterans. 

Once back home, in addition to health challenges, Lewis faced social and economic hardship. Like other skilled servicemembers, she sought meaningful employment, but her options were limited. As a result, without a job, Lewis struggled to make ends meet. 

Life changed when she connected with her local Veterans Affairs Department, where she heard about an apprenticeship opportunity offered by Bitwise Industries. The apprenticeship was a specialized program for veterans and involved both classes and on-the-job training in computer coding and development. Participants would learn coding skills and build sample projects, then work on client projects under the supervision and mentorship of a technical lead. 

Bitwise even offered to help apprentices navigate their housing assistance. The work was structured and conducted in a team environment that gave Lewis a sense of purpose and belonging.

Apprenticeships, in which workers learn new skills while getting paid, are increasingly being considered by individuals looking to reskill into a new career or upskill into a new level of their career, as well as by employers looking to fill acute talent needs. 

For workers, the benefits are obvious: learning on the job, earning a living wage, upskilling into better-paying positions, making connections with industry and employment, and earning credentials that could set workers on a dual path to earn two- or four-year degrees over time.

For employers, the benefits go beyond attracting workers in a tough talent market or creating a more loyal and diverse workforce specifically trained to their company’s needs. One study by the U.S. Department of Labor showed a return on investment of advanced manufacturing apprenticeship programs of $1.48 for every $1 invested.

Understanding these benefits, and with an eye toward expanding successful workforce models, California is once again leading the nation with significant new investments and strategies to expand apprenticeship. The recently enacted budget includes an unprecedented $480 million over the next three years to support this expansion.

Led by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goal of creating 500,000 Californian apprentices by 2029, the state’s labor agency is working to expand apprenticeship into such industries as technology, health care and hospitality (visit the Division of Apprenticeship Standards’ website for more information). 

Today, more than 80% of the state’s apprentices are in the building, construction and fire trades. These apprenticeships have served California workers and families for decades and are an incredible model for other industries.

Expanding apprenticeship will create new opportunities for women, people of color, individuals with disabilities and workers facing barriers. It will signify new opportunities for California’s youth. 

Many don’t know that the average age of apprentices in California today is 33. While apprenticeship is a fantastic option for trying a new career — as it was for Lewis — California aims to turn it into the common path and first choice for both in-school and out-of-school youths for whom the opportunity cost of higher education is simply too high.

Jen Lewis is an exceptional Californian, but her experience does not have to be the exception. With intentional state funding and strategies that will expand this model into new sectors while also expanding access to new workers, apprenticeship will help meet industry and worker needs in this changing and complex economy. It will also drive our recovering economy in a manner that is closely aligned with our values of equity and opportunity for all.

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