Higher Education

Where are all the women apprentices?

Female and African-American workers earn far less than other participants in these increasingly popular workforce training programs

Sarat Atobajeun started as an apprentice with Zurich Insurance last August. She said she appreciates the stability of the job and the diversity of the tasks she’s learning.

Zurich Insurance is one of a growing number of companies that have started apprenticeships in white-collar professions. While these companies often point to diversity as a goal of the programs, the overall picture shows that women make up a small share of apprentices nationwide and that females and African Americans earn less than their peers.

Apprenticeships date to the Middle Ages, but modernized versions of the workforce training programs are spreading as a way to combine classroom and on-the-job instruction. In at least one respect, however, the programs still seem less-than-modern: gender and racial equity.

According to a new study by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, women made up only 7.3 percent of apprentices in 2017. That share is up by just 1.1 percent since 2008, even though apprenticeships have started to expand beyond traditionally male professions such as construction into fields such as IT and early childhood education.

Apprentices earn a wage while gaining skills. But that wage tends to be considerably lower for female apprentices than males, according to the study. Women were earning a median of $11.49 an hour at the time they completed apprenticeships, compared to $27.25 for men. Female apprentices in male-dominated professions were paid less; meanwhile, apprenticeship programs in industries dominated by women, like child care, paid far less than ones in traditionally male fields.

“There’s this occupational segregation and there’s also the fact that the most common apprenticeships for women pay less than $10 an hour and for men it’s $20,” said Angela Hanks, a co-author of the report and the former director of workforce development policy at the Center for American Progress. Simply expanding apprenticeships into traditionally female professions won’t be enough unless those industries pay better across the board, she said.

Related: Are apprenticeships the new on-ramp to good jobs?

The report also found that African-American apprentices earned significantly less than apprentices from other racial and ethnic groups.

Black men earned just $20.47 an hour when they exited apprenticeships, compared with $28.07 for white men. Wages were higher still for Hispanic males, American Indian and Alaskan Native men and Asian men ($30.88, $35.24 and $31.75, respectively).

Geographic differences may at least partially explain those wage disparities, according to the report. Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and Alaskan Natives were more likely to complete their apprenticeships in the West, where average wages for participants were higher, perhaps because of the region’s comparatively high rates of unionization. Apprentice pay was lowest in the South, where many African Americans completed the programs.

The study, which was based on data on apprenticeships registered with the federal government, noted a few caveats. Black workers were more likely than others to complete their apprenticeships while incarcerated, which contributed to their depressed wages. That was also true for women. (Incarcerated workers are not subject to federal minimum wage laws; from 2008 to 2016, the median exit wage for incarcerated apprentices was just 35 cents per hour.)

In fact, a full quarter of black apprentices in the data were earning less than federal minimum wage, suggesting those individuals were likely incarcerated. “If a quarter of the share of already underrepresented black apprentices are people who are incarcerated, that really suggests we’re not recruiting from the available pool of workers,” said Hanks. “That shouldn’t be the only way we can increase the numbers, by putting these programs in prisons.”

Chart showing the gender wage gap among racial and ethnic groups

Hanks said that the Department of Labor has taken some steps in recent years to prioritize diversity by, for example, making it a condition of receiving federal grants. Employers, especially those in traditionally male professions, need to do more to ensure their work environments are friendly to women and explicitly recruit from under-served communities, she said.

Hanks also said she worried about backsliding under the Trump administration. The administration is exploring how to expand the programs, perhaps by creating a parallel system of “industry-recognized” apprenticeships that may not be subject to some of the same rules as the government-registered programs.

“If you start to look at their broader actions with regard to women and communities of color,” said Hanks, “it doesn’t inspire a lot of hope they will be doing a whole lot to ensure that women and people of color are equal participants in these programs.”

This story about women apprentices was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Caroline Preston

Caroline Preston is a senior editor. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with The… See Archive

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