Framework for a High-Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program: Opportunity Youth

By Lill Allen, Vanessa Bennett, Patricia Maguire, Michael Sack, Myriam Sullivan – Published May 10, 2021 by JFF Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based LearningSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This JFF report outlines the characteristics of high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs serving youth from 16 to 24 years old “who are disconnected from the workforce and education systems.”

Transparent Entry and Success Requirements
In the early recruitment stage of a pre-apprenticeship program, those that are high-quality must “clearly articulate entry requirements, including specific stipulations of requisite academic, employability, and social-emotional skills” to learners, staff, and referral agencies. Further, programs must outline the daily and self-management expectations for enrollment as well as possible barriers to enrollment like criminal history. For prospective students, this phase allows them to evaluate whether a program is worth their commitment and provides them with clarity on the career options associated with the program. For management and staff administering the program, this stage of the program should be used to evaluate their assessment method “to ensure that it is authentic and comprehensive, that it provides a true indicator of young people’s skills and readiness, and that it helps identify areas of growth.” JFF recommends a universal design for learning (UDL) for supporting the equal distribution of learning materials, inclusive learning environments, effective instructional practices, and flexible instructor and learning tools. For example, the Center for Applied Special Technology applies the use of e-portfolios to effectively document learners’ skills and knowledge. Additionally, for assessment and support of individuals with disabilities, JFF notes the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) as an expert resource. 

Alignment between Local Employers’ Labor Needs and Apprenticeship Curriculum
Teaching foundational professional and cognitive skills like teamwork, written communication, and problem solving is helpful in preparing program participants for engagement with workplace culture. Daily activities like collaborative group projects, role-playing and simulations can offer young adults tools for agency and advocacy within the workplace. In addition to employability skills, programs need to provide individuals with high school equivalency and diploma attainment for future job access. Moreover, all academic credentials and certifications offered must “help youth opportunity beyond entry-level employment and support their long-term career advancement.” JFF recommends The Competency Model Clearinghouse as a good resource for identifying employability and industry-specific skills. JFF also advises programs to collaborate with employers to receive feedback on how to align labor needs with course design. 

Other considerations programs must address in course design are: 

  • Providing a range of diverse learning modalities (writing, video, and audio) that can serve different learning styles.
  • Mechanisms for collaboration and engagement between students and instructors to enhance learning.
  • The use of e-portfolios to support students with learning disabilities. JFF highlights IMTfolio, an e-portfolio service implemented in the Industrial Manufacturing Technician Registered Apprenticeship program, as an effective support for students with disabilities. 
  • Mechanisms for learning that prompt comprehension of course content. 
  • Implementing a trauma-informed approach to foster an inclusive learning environment. 

Culmination in One or More Industry-Recognized Credentials
Short-term, industry-recognized credentials like OSHA 10 and CompTIA A+ are “typically stackable and portable to support a participant’s entry, growth and advancement along a career pathway.” Providing program participants with these types of credentials that can contribute to higher-level certificates and degrees broadens the career pathways aligned with the apprenticeship. Also, programs offering micro-credentials/certifications that display proficiency through performance-based assessments can allow students to market distinct occupational skills demanded by employers. 

To identify employer demanded credentials and micro-credentials, apprenticeships should consult with their state labor market information entities as well as workforce development boards and local industry leaders. In addition, apprenticeship programs should work with these organizations to develop extensive career pathway and credential strategies that deliver industry-needed skills and competencies to employers. 

An example of a program incorporating micro-certifications into course design is the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy within the Pennsylvania-certified Smart Manufacturing and Robotics Training (SMART) program. The Academy divides a larger technical certification into smaller micro-certifications. As a result, through short, targeted lessons and hands-on activities that “help students earn certain parts of certifications in class in robotic labs,” students can document their learning in an electronic portfolio. This model increases the portability of learned skills and provides endorsements that students can market to employers. Also, in fields that offer non-traditional apprenticeships like healthcare, human services, and early childhood development, connecting programs to further credentials and college credit is especially useful in broadening career paths for students. 

Development of Skills Through Hands-On Activities and Work-Based Learning
According to previous JFF research, work-based learning leads to “stronger employer engagement, higher levels of work satisfaction, and increased diversity and inclusion.” Work-based learning is especially useful for providing contextualized work-experience to youth who are interested in applying for jobs that require specific industry-competencies from employers. 

For developing work-based learning activities, JFF recommends collaboration with employers to develop hands-on lessons that “mirror the real-world work required for an occupation.” Furthermore, JFF recommends:

  • Creating quality work-based learning activities that “place an emphasis on problem-based learning and include input and continuous feedback from employers and apprenticeship sponsors.” 
  • Creating portfolios that track skill development and credential attainment.”
  • Small group discussions or presentations that allow students to interact and learn from one another. 
  • A range of learning modalities to serve different learning styles.
  • “Enabling engagement between participants and employer partners” to create networking opportunities for students. 
  • Prompting students to use career navigator tools provided by O*Net and Career OneStop to confirm their commitment to a work-based learning pathway. 
  • Creating a learning environment that is inclusive to LGBTQ youth.  

Offering of Academic, Career Exploration, and Wraparound Supports
Programs should offer personalized and practical support to students such as mental health services, childcare, career counseling/labor market research training, housing, nutritional services, and transportation. To develop wraparound supports, JFF recommends the following: 

  • Collaborate with educational specialists and use industry and workforce development partners to offer supplemental courses and tutoring.
  • Orient program participants with staff to facilitate efficient access of services. 
  • Offer personalized service to individuals that need additional help overcoming requirement gaps preventing them from entering the program. 
  • Provide trauma-informed and strength-based services to program participants to develop leadership and self-advocacy. 

Transition into a Registered Apprenticeship or Other High-Quality Apprenticeship Program
To ensure pre-apprenticeship students can seamlessly transfer into a Registered Apprenticeship, “providers should have a full understanding of the entry requirements and selection criteria of apprenticeship programs and design their programs with these requirements in mind.” JFF recommends The Urban Institute’s Competency-Based Framework or JFF’s self-paced online Competency-Based and Hybrid Apprenticeship course to develop relevant curriculum for bridging students to an apprenticeship. In addition to course design, “pre-apprenticeship programs should partner with industry, employers, unions, intermediaries and the public workforce systems to facilitate placements.” Partnerships with employers can ease hesitance in hiring young people from low-income backgrounds. Further, strong partnerships and engagements with employers gives programs the ability to “demonstrate the positive impacts that hiring [apprentices] can have on their bottom line.” JFF references a Corporation for a Skilled Workforce paper for employer engagement strategies that convey the benefits pre-apprenticeships bring to employers and stakeholders. 

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