Gary Lane’s knees ached from years working as a locksmith, so his doctor said it was time to find a new career. Patrick Andrews never really had a career, toiling in warehouses and dead-end jobs to support his daughter. Robert Smith was a Walmart employee, but knew it would never lead to his dream of computer programming.
The three D.C. residents left their jobs to be part of a growing apprenticeship program in the city — freshly revamped as local and federal leaders look to apprenticeships to plug a widening gap between the city’s affluent and poorer residents.
“This is my first career,” said Andrews, 31, an apprentice at the D.C. Department of Public Works, where he is learning to repair vehicles in the city’s fleet of garbage trucks, snowplows and cars. “When you are on the Beltway, you never see a car not pulled over. To me, that’s a sign that people need help with their cars and there’s money there.”
City leaders view apprenticeships as a way to help the District’s more than 25,000 unemployed residents — who are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic — secure well-paying jobs as a pathway into the middle class. Those who can’t afford to leave the workforce can receive financial assistance while they enroll in an apprenticeship, which lasts one to four years.
If apprentices complete a program, they typically are employed with an average starting salary of more than $60,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In September, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced she would allocate $400,000 in additional grants to the city's apprenticeship program to diversify offerings and include more industries. While many private companies fund their own apprenticeship programs, the city grants will be used, in part, to help companies pay apprentices.
The city has spent about $2 million on apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs since Bowser took office in 2014, paying residents while they become federally certified in a trade, said Odie Donald, director of D.C.’s Department of Employment Services. Under the administration, the number of people participating in apprenticeship programs has grown from 600 to 1,300, with about 60 percent of them living in Wards 7 and 8.
“We have apprenticeships that touch both traditional and nontraditional industries,” he said. “I don’t want to say there is nothing that is not apprenticable, but there are very few occupations that are not apprenticable.”
Smith, the former Walmart employee, is in a year-long apprenticeship with technology company Securetech360, where he is learning the ins and outs of repairing advanced conference room equipment. He also is starting to take classes in software development and coding.
Smith, 22, already received his “A-Plus,” an entry-level computer technician certification. He said he eventually wants to work in “ethical computer hacking.”
“As the days went by in my retail job, I grew unsatisfied,” he said. “Ever since elementary school, I’ve been interested in computers.”
Apprenticeship programs appear to be an area where the District’s and federal government’s interests are in sync. The Obama administration began to prioritize job training programs and the push has continued under President Trump, who signed an executive order in June to expand apprenticeship programs. The order nearly doubled the amount of federal money for apprenticeship programs nationwide to $200 million, reallocating funds from existing job programs.
The expansion of apprenticeship programs in the District comes after the city was considered to have one of the worst job-training programs in the country before a recent turnaround.
In September, the Department of Labor gave the city a vote of confidence, ending its designation as a “high-risk” partner in job training and employment programs. The city had low enrollment numbers in workforce training programs, but the federal labor agency said the city has started to reverse that trend.
Donald said apprenticeships are one component of the push to get unemployed or underemployed residents into careers. There are also pre-apprenticeships, which don’t have a federal certification component, and the On-the-Job Training Program matching job trainees and employers, with D.C. paying part of the trainee’s salary for up to six months. D.C. Public Schools also offers career training for students in high schools.
“It’s a connected effort across all of D.C. government to fix this gap,” Donald said.
D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At-Large), chairwoman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said the city needs to better inform residents about apprenticeship program offerings. She said the building trades industries, such as painting and welding, have a number of slots available for apprentices that residents aren’t filling.
Silverman and Ward 8 Council member Trayon White (D) are preparing legislation that would expand apprenticeships at local government agencies.
“The reason why you see excitement about apprenticeships, and certainly on the District level, is it’s a way to earn and learn,” Silverman said. “They connect job seekers with jobs and it also helps build our future workforce.”
Gary Lane, 49, an apprentice at the Department of Public Works, said he hopes to continue working with D.C. government long after completing his program.
“I’d hate to take the knowledge and go somewhere else,” he said. “If they train me here, I want to stay.”