Early educators spend all day building baby brains, setting them up for lifelong learning. You would think, then, that they would be supported and paid accordingly. But, as you already know if you’re a reader of Bellwether’s early childhood work, that’s not the case. Early educators actually make less than animal caretakers and desk clerks.
The early childhood field is exploring alternative pathways to better compensate and prepare early educators. One such pathway is an early childhood apprenticeship, like the Registered Apprenticeship initiative offered in Virginia. To understand how this apprenticeship operates, I spoke with Kathy Glazer, the President of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF), a key partner in the Registered Apprenticeship program.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the basics. What is the registered apprenticeship and what is VECF’s involvement with it?
The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation leverages a partnership with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry to facilitate and promote registered apprenticeships for early childhood educators. The program allows early childhood employers — specifically, child care directors — to designate early educator employees as apprentices, or be apprentices themselves.
Apprentices complete a sequence of coursework and on-the-job training based on an individualized professional development plan. They need to complete a certain number of coursework hours; they receive college credit for those. They’re also paired, one-on-one, with a veteran staff member who mentors them and advises their on-the-job training. It takes about two years to go through the program.
VECF’s role is to facilitate and shape implementation of the apprenticeship program. We identify potential participants and leverage an existing state-funded initiative, Project Pathfinders, to cover the cost of the required college coursework (tuition, fees, textbooks, etc.) so that there’s no cost for apprentices or their employers.
What do apprentices get after completing the program?
All apprentices receive a national registered apprentice certification. And because Virginia apprentices complete credit-bearing coursework, they also typically earn a community college certificate in early childhood, which is a step toward completing an associate degree. The idea is that they bank credit that has value on its own, but can add up to something bigger. In addition to the certificates, apprentices earn a required employer-determined wage increase.
How is the apprenticeship different from other pathways into early childhood teaching?
Apprenticeships solve a number of key issues that other, more traditional, preparation and development pathways do not. Primarily, apprenticeships support the incumbent workforce. They allow individuals to improve their practice and get a wage increase, while they are actively working in the field and being compensated.
But there are other advantages. The apprenticeship’s model of related instruction — where the apprentice completes coursework while also working alongside an on-site mentor — gives the professionals the opportunity to immediately apply their learnings to classroom practice.
That second point sounds a lot like a point commonly made in favor of teacher residencies. Is the registered apprenticeship more like a teacher residency or a trade apprenticeship?
This apprenticeship doesn’t fit neatly into one category or the other. Instead, we’re trying to blend the best of both the teacher residency and trade apprenticeship worlds. One notable difference from both teacher residencies and trade apprenticeships, in which participants may be novices in their field, is that Virginia’s early childhood apprentices are currently working in early education settings and may have years of experience in the classroom under their belts.
We don’t feel like we’ve yet resolved all the outstanding issues to create a perfect balance. But we’re optimistic, and we give ourselves permission to continuously adapt and tinker to get to a model that really works. We try to be really thoughtful about doing that: What is the right recipe of different characteristics to create a model that really fits this unique workforce?
This is one of the few early childhood apprenticeships in existence. I’m sure you’ve had to figure things out as you go. How has the apprenticeship evolved over time?
We’ve had some tough knocks along the way. One example: Initially we were getting feedback that for this workforce, the idea of a national registered apprentice certification wasn’t seen as particularly important or valuable. And the “trade” connotation or reputation of an apprenticeship didn’t feel right to some.
In response, we worked with Virginia’s Department of Labor to make sure the approved coursework was credit-bearing and could lead to a certificate or degree in our higher education system. That was one of the earliest adaptations of this model, and an example of how our partnership with the Department of Labor resulted in a win. Even though this isn’t exactly how the apprenticeship might work for mechanics, for example, this is a way of taking an interesting model and adapting it for our workforce.
For others considering starting an apprenticeship program: What lessons have you learned the hard way? What are the necessary conditions for success?
Most of our lessons have been hard won, but the pain has led to gain in terms of the insights we have learned. We probably thought originally that we would see more completers more quickly. What we really wanted to accomplish was helping people complete their obligations and get that pay raise. But we’ve seen a good deal of attrition.
That shouldn’t be surprising to us given the turnover in the field and the challenges of the childcare industry in general, with thin margins and high costs. That makes it difficult, especially for small programs which may not have the bandwidth to sustain one or more apprentices over a two-year time period.
One thing that we’ve learned from this experience is that we have a greater chance of success (with regard to completion) when we partner with early childhood programs and directors who have sufficient capacity, size of enrollment, and staff, and a sound commitment to instructional leadership. That’s not to say that smaller programs or more informal programs — which are where a lot of vulnerable children spend their days — can’t benefit from this, but as we’re getting started and building the model, these conditions set us up better for success.
The last thing I would say is that anyone interested in starting an apprenticeship program should take a trip to Philadelphia for inspiration.
What is the ideal vision for success for the apprenticeship, and how will you get there?
The ideal vision for success is yet to be revealed! VECF is committed to being intentional in incubating this work. We are eager to consider adaptations and to track the outcomes we’re seeing from this adventure. Our questions are: Will this result in more talented teachers? Will this bring sustained higher compensation? Will there be greater retention and job satisfaction for these teachers in 0-5 classrooms? Will there be benefit to these employers?
We trust that we’ll learn from apprentices who have completed the program. Overall, we want to know: Is there enough evidence that this is a feasible model?
I’m referring to this pilot and exploration as an adventure, but I want to be clear that we feel indebted to directors and apprentices who have gone down this path with us. We want to make sure we’re honoring that trust and utilizing the opportunity to really make sure this is a prudent and effective pathway for the workforce. And even though we’re doing all we can to minimize cost and maximize convenience for participants, it’s still a huge investment of employers’ and apprentices’ time, energy, and faith. We want to be confident that the benefits will accrue back to them in a durable way.
Recently there has been a great deal of movement within the field around early childhood workforce development. Are apprenticeships a viable way to support and prepare early educators? What does the field need to do to take advantage of them?
Candidly, I can’t say that I’m 100 percent sold on the model. But I do think there is real potential that apprenticeships are a solid option to support and prepare early educators. It’s going to require more testing, more adaptation, more nuanced strategy, and more willingness to tinker before we can claim it as a success.
It’s a reminder to me that in the early childhood field, we need to be more open to considering where we can learn from other fields and disciplines. Apprenticeships are an opportunity to get in a lane that is working for other industries and workforces.
This blog post is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read the other posts in the #ResidentExperts series here.