Last week the nation observed National Apprenticeship Week. When people think of apprenticeships, they seldom associate them with early childhood educators. But these programs are promising solutions for improving the knowledge and skills of the early childhood workforce. Here’s why.

Apprenticeships prepare workers for a job in their chosen career pathway while meeting the needs of the labor market for a highly skilled workforce. The learn-while-you-earn model provides workers with paid on-the-job training and instruction tied to attainment in national skills standards. In the case of the early childhood industry, it is generally the Child Development Associate, a national credential requiring at least 120 hours of formal training within the last five years. Apprentices can be youth, adults who are new hires, or current employees looking to upgrade their skills.

A high-quality, early childhood education workforce is essential to build and to sustain a strong economy. The challenges we face today on this front are how to improve the quality of this workforce — who are entrusted with the care and education of our next generation — that includes creation of a viable pipeline of highly skilled early childhood educators to meet the needs of working families and their children, plus increased wages to help attain improved financial security.

Regardless of family makeup, a majority of adults with young children are working in the marketplace. That translates to six out of 10 children from birth to 5 spending time in some form of non-parent child care. The result is our nation’s early childhood education workforce is playing a vital role in supporting the development of a significant number of young children as parents head off to work each day.  And the stakes have never been higher — developing new pathways to ensure a high-quality early learning workforce matters now more than ever to the future of our families, our children, and our prosperity.

Research tells us that high-quality child care — gauged by measures such as education and training of staff, quality programming, and low child/teacher ratios — can play a direct role in setting the stage for positive life outcomes for young children, particularly low-income children. Yet, despite steps to improve quality in child care settings in policy and practice over the past couple of decades, attempts to professionalize the early childhood workforce have been slow to take hold.

Exacerbating the problem, early childhood education staff are among the lowest-paid occupations in the nation. While policy has begun to shift to raise educational requirements, with pressure mounting for two- and four-year degrees, pay has remained stagnant. Median wages for early childhood educators range from $11.17 per hour to $14.32 per hour — which are poverty-level wages. These figures are particularly hard to believe given the high price of child care throughout the United States, prices so high that the average child care worker would struggle to afford care for her own children.

Historically, a career in early childhood has been considered low-skill. In too many states, all that was needed was a high school diploma. We now know that in order to be effective, early childhood providers need training rooted in child development theory coupled with on-the-job learning.

In Colorado, the Child Care Development Specialist Apprenticeship is a two-year program that offers supports for child care employees 16 and older, which includes funding for community college courses, books, compensation for mentors who advise apprentices, and substitutes to fill in for apprenticeships as needed during the program. As part of the program, apprentices receive a wage increase every six months upon completion of specified goals.

Launched in 2016, Philadelphia’s CDA-to-Associate’s-Degree includes an accelerated associate degree program in addition to 4,000 hours of on-the-job training. Apprentices and employers each pay $500 toward the $12,000 degree. During the first three months of Philadelphia’s apprentice program, wages increased an average of 42 cents per hour for participants, with expectations of wage increases of $2 to $3 per hour from acceptance as an apprentice to completion of the associate degree.

Apprenticeship programs offer promise for the development of a much-needed high-quality early childhood workforce. These programs are hardly a new concept. Dating back to the early 1900s, apprenticeships have traditionally targeted industries such as manufacturing and construction. However, more recently the apprenticeship model has been gaining traction in other high-demand career pathways, such as health care and IT. It is also a strategy a small handful of states and communities are currently using — and succeeding — to increase the pipeline of highly qualified early childhood professionals.  Apprenticeship is worthy of deeper exploration and application in the early childhood education field.