Explainer: Early Childhood Registered Apprenticeships

(Explainer originally published February 18, 2020, by Bipartisan Policy Center)

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The early childhood workforce includes 2 million workers who care for and educate 10 million children from birth to age 5, who have an undeniable impact on shaping a child’s successful development. Yet the field is challenged by notably low wages which make recruiting and retaining quality staff difficult. The average national median hourly wage for child care workers decreased to $10.72 in 2017 from $13.74 in 2016, a wage below the poverty line in nearly every state.

At the same time, demand for a highly educated early childhood workforce is increasing due to improved parent knowledge, a growing market for child care, and changing programs. Unfortunately, child care workers struggle to improve their wages by means such as increasing their competencies, knowledge, and skills on the job.

A 2018 Department of Labor report showed the early childhood workforce faces significant barriers to higher education and professional-development systems. Registered apprenticeships, or RAs, part of a career pathway as defined by the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, or WIOA, are a compelling option for states to support their early childhood workforce. RA programs combine classroom instruction, on-the-job training, and mentorship to create a holistic, earnwhile-you-learn approach. RAs allow states to support the existing workforce through growing skills and increasing wages while also creating a unique pathway for the emerging workforce.

States lead WIOA implementation, develop WIOA State Plans, and are instrumental in developing RAs. Several states offer strong models for RAs and demonstrate the unique adaptability to meet communities’ needs. West Virginia’s early childhood apprenticeship, the oldest continuous model in the country, includes four semesters of low-cost higher education classes and results in apprentices receiving a journeyperson certificate. Nine West Virginia colleges and universities count a journeyperson certificate toward a bachelor’s or associate degree.

“Registered Apprenticeships allow states to support the existing workforce through growing skills and increasing wages while also creating a unique pathway for the emerging workforce.”


In many cases, state leaders do not have the resources or knowledge to take advantage of the exciting opportunities RAs offer. Nearly all resources for apprenticeship programs are aimed at health care and labor industries, and limited funding and best-practice guidance are available to start new early childhood RAs. We recommend several ways the federal government and state leaders can support states and communities with developing these programs:

  • Congress should consider funding start-up costs for states to develop and accelerate RAs as part of an early childhood career pathway.
  •  The Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services should consider actively promoting RAs as a part of a WIOA-defined career pathway for the early childhood workforce.
  • HHS should consider expanding their early childhood professional-development technical assistance to include workforce expertise in career pathways and RAs.
  • HHS should consider including career pathways and RAs in the 2022-2024 Child Care and Development Fund Plan preprint.
  • States should consider charging their WIOA task forces with developing a WIOA-defined early childhood career pathway and RA program, and they should include this work in their WIOA state plans.
  • States should consider including early childhood RAs as part of their workforce funding.
  • States should consider using systems-building grants, such as the Preschool Development Grant Birth to Five, to fund higher-education institutions to develop and monitor content, coursework, and related instruction in RAs.

The Bipartisan Policy Center would like to thank the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their generous support of this work.