Apprenticeship Programs Are a Promising Solution to Bring More Multilingual Workers into Early Childhood Field
Shortages of workers continue to plague early childhood education and care (ECEC) systems across the United States. The early childhood sector was hit hard by COVID-19, with ECEC systems losing more than 100,000 workers and in excess of 12,000 programs closing. For immigrant-origin families with Dual Language Learner (DLL) children, these shortages compound their difficulties engaging with a sector that already struggles to effectively serve those who speak languages other than English. Addressing the child-care system’s workforce crisis and persisting inequities within it requires a multipronged approach that meets families’ diverse needs.
Improving the accessibility of ECEC jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage for workers who speak a language other than English is one promising solution, particularly since immigrant workers have historically comprised a large share of the early childhood workforce. Yet administrative and bureaucratic barriers to the recruitment, hiring, and advancement of multilingual workers, including immigrants, continue to hinder efforts to advance this potential win-win strategy for both the early childhood sector and its existing and prospective workers. The development and expansion of apprenticeship programs specifically designed for ECEC careers could help establish reliable pathways for immigrant workers to help fill the labor shortages faced by early childhood systems—a point worth considering this week, which is National Apprenticeship Week.
Struggles for DLL Families and Immigrant Early Childhood Workers
A growing share of families with young children (ages 0 to 5) in the United States have DLL children. One of every three young children has at least one parent at home who speaks a language other than English—the definition of a DLL. Yet early childhood programs often struggle to reach and include such families in their services due to factors including a lack of affordability and availability, schedules that do not accommodate nontraditional work hours, and absence of engagement in languages other than English (part of larger challenges related to language access in major ECEC programs).
Immigrants comprise approximately 20 percent of the ECEC workforce but are not evenly distributed across early childhood programs. They are over-represented in lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs in the profession, and many are also informally employed in the sector. Immigrant families, particularly those who are low-income, often rely on Family, Friend, and Neighbor (FFN) care which, while outside of more formal ECEC systems, is often more likely to be culturally and linguistically responsive. Yet the essential support provided by FFN caregivers remains largely unrecognized within the ECEC field.
U.S.-born early childhood workers are almost twice as likely as those who are foreign born to be employed as preschool teachers or program directors, reflecting the formal sector’s preference for employees with higher levels of education or formal credentials. This preference can exclude many immigrant workers from professional advancement, given the cost of such qualifications and requirements such as advanced proficiency in English. As a result, while many skilled immigrant FFN caregivers and other potential foreign-born workers may desire to enter the formal ECEC workforce, licensure can be prohibitively difficult to complete.
The Apprenticeship Model
Apprenticeship programs represent a promising solution to help bring more multilingual workers into the early childhood field in a way that leverages their existing strengths and skillsets while providing immediate compensation. Apprenticeship programs, which date to the 1930s, are managed by the U.S. Department of Labor or through federally recognized state apprenticeship agencies. Over the past year, Registered Apprenticeship programs served an estimated 593,000 people in industries ranging from construction to health care and technology. Unlike other workforce training programs, apprenticeships are generally aligned with specific jobs or with an employer and are paid, allowing participants to “earn and learn” as they gain a nationally recognized certificate and skills for a specific job.
Registered Apprenticeships frequently lead to employment in high-wage positions. Labor Department data indicate that 93 percent of those who complete apprenticeships attain employment with an average annual salary of $77,000. The early childhood sector is among the many industries that have developed apprenticeship programs in recent years. In fact, Early Childhood Educator was declared one of the top five new occupations for apprentices in fiscal year (FY) 2021, and new pilot programs are seeking to develop best practices for the approach in the ECEC context. Labor Department-registered ECEC apprenticeship programs in California and Pennsylvania have already developed models that combine instruction, on-the-job training, mentoring, and other supports to assist participants earning certificates and/or associate degrees that will lead to higher-wage employment.
This development of apprenticeships for the early childhood field has also seen intentional movement towards the inclusion of multilingual workers. Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, which primarily serves Latino communities in the city, has developed an apprenticeship program that has targeted parents of children who previously enrolled in the ECEC program, enabling the recruitment of those with language skills and cultural knowledge who can provide key supports to participating families. A similar pilot in California has aimed to develop an apprenticeship program to specifically recruit Spanish-speaking and other multilingual FFN providers to better equip them to effectively serve DLL families while also earning credentials and finding pathways to higher wages. As in Charlotte, the California pilot has actively sought to recruit workers from the diverse communities local ECEC programs are attempting to serve.
Strategies to Better Include Immigrant Workers
By combining paid on-the-job training with related classroom instruction, apprenticeships have the potential to recruit more valuable multilingual workers for the early childhood field and to help them obtain greater skills, higher wages, and career advancement. However, efforts to deploy apprenticeship models to recruit more of these workers will have to address several limitations that could undercut the promise of this approach.
The three primary limitations include low wage levels overall in the early childhood field, the expense of apprenticeship programs, and eligibility requirements as well as prerequisites that could limit interested immigrants’ ability to participate. Low pay remains one of the primary reasons why the early childhood sector struggles to attract workers. Without more competitive wages, ECEC apprenticeship models may fail to attract as much interest as opportunities in higher-paying sectors. Apprenticeships also can pose significant costs for employers and providers, both in terms of funding and staff time required to develop and maintain the program. As for eligibility and prerequisites, some immigrants could face significant barriers to participate in early childhood apprenticeship programs. In addition to often requiring work authorization, many apprenticeship programs demand advanced levels of English proficiency and a high school degree. Yet apprenticeships are not legally obligated to mandate prerequisites other than a minimum age, suggesting those programs aiming to recruit more multilingual apprentices could eliminate prerequisites that serve as barriers to enrollment.
Beyond adding much needed workers to the early childhood sector, strategies to include immigrants in ECEC apprenticeships could help develop the linguistically and culturally competent workforce needed to effectively serve immigrant and refugee families. To ensure that ECEC apprenticeships live up to this promise, early childhood systems and the workforce and educational providers developing these programs at national, state, and local levels should consider:
- Adjusting or supplementing the design and curriculum of ECEC apprenticeships to effectively attract and serve apprentices who are immigrants and others who speak languages other than English. Such approaches should aim to combine instruction in best practices for working with DLL and English instruction in combination with work-based learning. Programs should also consider easing formal education requirements for participation where practical and focus on ways to create pathways to family-sustaining wages and to offer services in languages other than English.
- Making targeted efforts to recruit FFN caregivers as well as parents of DLLs currently enrolled in early childhood programs, which can create a valuable pipeline of committed early childhood workers with valuable language skills and lived experience. Models such as the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool program provide excellent examples of how to recruit and serve immigrant apprentices as well as how to tie their training to improved early childhood services for immigrant communities.
- Developing short-term career pathways and contextualized English and literacy instruction, including through pre-apprenticeship programs that can prepare multilingual and English learner participants for larger-scale early childhood apprenticeship programs. Partnerships with Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title II adult education programs could help develop effective bridge or preparatory programs and reach potential participants. In addition, intentional recruitment of multilingual young adults via partnerships with high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and other services targeting youth have the potential to bring more workers with linguistic and cultural skills into the early childhood workforce.
- Exploring legislative and administrative options at the federal level that could provide more relevant research and best practices for those interested in building early childhood apprenticeship programs. For example, a bill introduced in the Senate, the Early Educators Apprenticeship Act, would direct the Labor Department to award grants to states and providers that develop early childhood apprenticeships. It also would encourage developing repositories of best practices and data that can build evidence for the field. Such efforts should incorporate evaluation metrics—such as languages spoken and English proficiency levels of participating individuals—and requirements to evaluate and include the participation of eligible multilingual workers in early childhood apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships represent a promising strategy to open the early childhood system to immigrant and other multilingual workers, bringing much-needed linguistic and cultural skills into the workforce. Success, however, will require intentional, multipronged efforts to recruit immigrants for these programs and lift barriers to their participation. These efforts will also need to include support for vital research to develop best practices and replicable models that will enable early childhood apprenticeship programs to expand and thrive.