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D.C. leaders hope revamped apprenticeships can bring more residents to the middle class

Gary Lane

Gary Lane, 49, from left, Darrin Williams, 38, and Patrick Andrews, 31, at a facility of the Department of Public Works. The men are all part of the District's apprenticeship program, which aims to boost participants into the middle class. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

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."

View a podcast of Gary's Story

From Worst to First: Transforming D.C.'s Workforce Development Systems

Odie Donald

Washington, D.C. had a problem: Decades of neglect had helped make it one of the lowest-performing workforce development agencies in the country.

Without a functioning board, while attempting to comply with a raft of new federal regulations and consistently poor program administration, the District could not effectively serve residents. Those issues reached a boiling point in 2012, when the U.S. Department of Labor labeled the District a "High-Risk" grantee for its workforce programs, a seldom-used designation.

That status became a further obstacle to program delivery, limiting the District's ability to innovate and apply for federal grants, while also levying sanctions and increased oversight. As a result, residents were not receiving equitable services and citizens and businesses no longer trusted D.C. to fulfill its workforce obligations.

Upon assuming office in 2015, Mayor Muriel Bowser knew the District needed to change. She created the role of Deputy Mayor of Greater Economic Opportunity, appointing Deputy Mayor Courtney R. Snowden, and attracted new talent to reshape the its workforce system, led by Department of Employment Services (DOES) Director Odie Donald II.

To get to the root of the agency's problems, Donald and District leaders conducted a listening tour across all eight wards, speaking directly to residents and businesses. They identified clear problems and solutions in both service delivery and program administration. Donald believed that empowering the agency to identify and address business' specific pain points would ultimately produce benefits for D.C. residents.

With the information gained from the listening tour, Donald and the DOES team took action. Over the next two years, leaders identified system improvements: they realigned and adjusted programming, connected services with District-funded construction projects and found more alignment with businesses' needs.

After taking the helm of DOES, Donald invested in staff and equipped them to better-serve residents, creating a professional development program: Academy DOES. The program prepares staff for management roles and provides executive coaching through a partnership with George Washington University. DOES also redesigned programming focused on work-based learning and workplace readiness. The result is giving residents marketable skills that make them more attractive to employers and fill workforce gaps in specific industries.

The D.C. Infrastructure Academy, for example, was established as a one-stop shop to develop skills essential for positions in the transportation, energy and information security industries. DOES also launched Apprenticeship D.C., which partnered with over 300 apprenticeship sponsors to provide program-funding grants to local businesses in order to increase the number of District residents enrolled in apprenticeships. The agency has also increased resources available to participants of the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program, raising the age limit to 24. As a result of these investments and other programs focused on driving opportunities for youth, DOES' federally funded programs have achieved an 85 percent retention rate.

DOES then focused its attention on bolstering program compliance, levying the first-ever First Source fine in the twenty-year history of the program, and worked to ensure that D.C. residents became part of new and ongoing District-funded projects. Finally, DOES leveraged customer feedback to develop the "Customer Service Bill of Rights," so that businesses and citizens can access services available through the agency with confidence that it will fulfill its promises.

Each of these investments has shown early returns, evidenced by an array of statistical improvements. Unemployment has dropped by 1.1 percent overall, decreasing in all eight wards. The total number of D.C. apprentices doubled, and services provided to D.C. youths increased by 700 percent - quadrupling the amount of out-of-school youth served through the federally-funded program. The First Source program is also in compliance for the first time in its history, and newly-enforced labor laws have recouped more than $23 million in lost wages.

In total, District workforce programs have served more than 100,000 residents and assisted more than 35,000 in finding employment through FY16. In September of 2017, the Department of Labor removed the District's high-risk designation - a clear sign it is moving in the right direction, and an indication to businesses that D.C. is able to provide the highly-skilled workforce necessary to maintain and grow businesses' investments.

Through strong leadership, strategic investment and innovation, the District has transformed the state-level public workforce system from the worst in the country into one of the best. Under the Mayor Bowser's leadership, the District's workforce system is making sure all residents have the opportunity to improve their lives through access to stable, high-paying jobs in their community.

Washington Story


Dennis was a mechanic in the military, but as a civilian has been unable to get a job in his field. He wanted a career in trucking, so decided to attend Commercial Driving School (CDS) in the Lacey area.

James was a homeless veteran who also looked for a career in trucking. He began CDS training in addition to enrollment in a Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act program.

A trucking employer in the area was looking for drivers and contacted the Local Veterans Employment Representative (LVER) at WorkSource, who had previously helped the trucking employer hire a veteran. The LVER went to Career Path Services, a WorkSource partner organization, to see if counselors Kat Santana or Shannon Benton knew of any qualified veterans the company could hire.

Kat and Shannon did. The counselors contacted Dennis and James, who interviewed for the positions. Both veterans interviewed well and were offered a position with the company pending the completion of their final driving tests and attaining their commercial driving license.

Kat and Shannon provided supportive services to both veterans and they're working on developing an on-the-job training position for Dennis. A Disabled Veterans Outreach Program representative at WorkSource helped James get food, gas and lodging and enrolled him in the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program.

While James did not initially pass his driving test, the veterans staff at WorkSource continue to assist him with housing and with his job search. He has not given up on a career in trucking, and Career Path Services will fund a second CDL test for him. A colleague at WorkSource Lewis County identified two jobs in that area that could be a great fit.

Dennis is also re-taking his driving test and is still being considered for hire in Centralia. We'll continue to follow his progress and are confident that we'll report a successful outcome.

Brenda Laban WA WIOA

During the last few years, I've reached out to Dollar Tree store managers and have established a good relationship. They all have hired veterans. We honored one store with the coveted YesVets decal for hiring three veterans in 2016, and they just hired another.

The store managers knew that I advocated to get our nation's veterans hired as store managers in training or assistant managers and associates. They also were aware that our veterans employment representative at WorkSource worked with homeless veterans.

During the cold winter last December, the managers contacted me with a plan. They wanted their customers to purchase scarves, hats, ear muffs and gloves for WorkSource to pass on to veterans.

The stores donated over 1,600 items, and WorkSource passed them on to homeless veterans at American Lake, to several Pierce County shelters and to the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs also donated some to nonprofit organizations assisting veterans. Many of these items were in children's sizes so we donated those to churches and other Pierce County community agencies.

Many of the recipients sent letters to the Dollar Tree stores, recognizing the customers who had purchased the items. Store managers posted the letters at their respective stores to show their customers appreciation.

As Washington celebrates Thanksgiving, we want to give thanks to our generous businesses and partners who work with us to hire and serve veterans, their families and all our customers. Enjoy the holidays!

View Brenda's Story

Susan Gabrielle WA WIOA

When Ebadullah first arrived in my class, he was very reluctant about speaking. He felt his English was sub-standard even though he and his family had moved from Iran four years ago, where he was a successful contractor and had owned his own business.

Fatefully, the week he arrived we were teaching the module on communication skills, and though he was somewhat shy at first, he never turned down my requests for participation. Slowly, the serious face he brought to class changed, and I would see him smile more often. Soon we began having significant discussions as I asked about his family, about his life in Iran, and about his new life here. I encouraged him to speak about anything just to practice and become more comfortable with the language.

As he began to apply for jobs, we would practice mock interviewing and the 60-second commercial so he could be more prepared. At the beginning, he couldn't even make it through the elevator speech without looking down at his prepared paper. But when I suggested he just talk it out to me, he relaxed and the words more naturally flowed.

Within a few weeks of arriving in class, he had an opportunity to apply for a project manager job on a construction site. He appeared at class the next morning just beaming; he had gotten the position. It was such a boost to his confidence, and he thanked me for helping him. I told him how proud I was of his progress, and how much I appreciated him trusting me in the process. #powerofajob

View Susan's Story

Michael Hooker WA WIOA

I'm Michael Hooker with Aerotek, a recruiting and staffing agency with offices all over the country. I've been with the company for about 12 years now, and we've worked with WorkSource for just about the entire time I've been here.

We made a big change about eight years ago and started doing a lot of the recruiting for shipyard work here in Bremerton. Last year, we hired about 240 folks out here - veterans primarily.

I come out here every Tuesday and Thursday. Aerotek was thinking of renting a space in Bremerton, but WorkSource gave me free office space so I could invite some of the vets out there at 9 a.m. each morning.

WorkSource got them there. They do a lot of the pre-screening of applicants for us. That helps me out a lot, since my office is back in Federal Way. Plus, if they have any veterans who come in throughout the week, or if any job seekers have background in a shipyard, WorkSource will set them up to come see me, fill out an application and have a face-to-face interview.

When Aerotek first started coming to WorkSource, we held job fairs with probably 120 people showing up. But out of those, we probably would hire only seven or eight. Few were actually qualified, with the background and clearances we required.

So, after a lot of discussion with WorkSource staff, they came to understand better what we were looking for. Instead of bringing in 120 people, they would refer maybe only 20, but they were better qualified. Out of those 20, we would hire about 16 or 17. So, basically it was a lot more efficient. Plus, it didn't hurt all those people coming in and finding they weren't qualified.

WorkSource is a free service. My success here in Bremerton over the last eight years is 100 percent tied to WorkSource, so can't get much better than that. They've definitely done a great job helping us out.

View Michael's Story



It's ironic that 44-year-old Leotis Lewis went to prison for stealing a semi-trailer truck, and now for the first real job in his life, he's driving a semi for Mansur Trucking, Janesville.

Leotis's Career Specialist Cyndi Pohl was uncertain when it came to helping Leotis. He had no work experience having spent the majority of his life fending for himself on the streets of Chicago and spending time in prison, including five years for stealing the semi. "To come up with a resume for him was quite challenging," she said. But they did and it helped greatly in securing his current position.

Leotis grew up in the infamous Robert Taylor housing project in Chicago, where 95% of the residents were unemployed. The project was known for its narcotics, violence, and perpetuation of poverty. Planned for 11,000 inhabitants, it at one time housed over 27,000. It included six of the poorest U.S. Census areas of 2,500 or more. It was finally torn down in March of 2007.

Leotis scammed, sold drugs, and did anything he could in order to get by. He completed his sophomore year of high school and then dropped out. During his last prison time, he decided it was time for a change and he told the judge he was going to change his ways. "It would be easy for me to say I'm a product of my environment, and doing good is hard to do, but I made up my mind I was going to succeed," Leotis said.

He earned his GED in 2015 while at a federal prison in Colorado, and while at Oxford Federal Penitentiary in Wisconsin, he worked on his Commercial Driver's License (CDL). But what he lacked was the practical experience. "Oxford had a brand-new simulator, but for the three years when I was there they never hooked it up," Leotis explained. "I would've loved to have trained on that." When he was released from prison, he decided to stay in a halfway house in Wisconsin, completing a drug program and sessions on changing ways of thinking. "I won't go back to Chicago. Trouble is too easy to find there, and even if you try to avoid it, it has its way of finding you," he said.

Leotis utilized WIOA to complete his CDL-Class A licensure through the 160 Driving Academy, Rockford, IL in late July, 2017. He also earned his Forklift Safety certification in April of 2017.

"I am so proud of Leotis! He is not only my 'Star Client,' he was my secretary for a while during training by getting messages to the other guys for me," Cyndi said. "One day when he was here at the Job Center after having what he thought was a failed job interview [because of his background], I suggested he go on a website and apply for a different job [with Mansur]." Cyndi said Leotis, looking 'spiffy' in his interview clothes, went to the company to apply in-person, laid everything out on the line, and was hired on the spot!

"They admitted their respect in that he was upfront with them," Cyndi said. "Leotis is a true example of determination and very genuine about his new life. He is always so respectful and has done what was asked of him. I wish him the best success always and hope he has a lot of fun along the highway to his new life!"

One of the motivating factors for Leotis is having a job where he can help his six-year-old daughter, who has medical issues. "That's one of the reasons why I wanted to become a truck driver, to have a steady job with a steady income to support her," he said. He also plans on staying with Mansur for a long time, so he can retire and receive those benefits.

"I used to do anything to get by, legal or not. I always knew I wanted something better, and I've taken advantage of those programs like WIOA to make it happen, "Leotis said." I don’t ever want to revert to the old days and old ways."

Steel Rope

Matthew enrolled in the Windows to Work (W2W) program on July 26, 2016. At the time of his enrollment, he was unemployed, on probation, and wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do for employment. While working with his case manager, Matthew was able to find employment fairly quickly, however due to the company closing, Matthew was once again without employment. In May of this year, Matthew attended a WIOA orientation to benefit from the services the program has to offer, and was primarily interested in the On-the-Job Training opportunity since he wanted a career rather than a job. After receiving a job lead from his career planner, Matthew applied for the position and received a call for an interview from the employer. On May 30, 2017, Matthew was hired and started working as a full-time Spooler Operator at Wisconsin Wire Works making $15.00 per hour.


Alan is a CNC Machinist with experience in the set-up and operation of CNC Machining Centers. He worked as a CNC Machinist for a manufacturer in Waukesha and he enrolled in the WIOA program about a month after his last day of work in February 2017 following outreach and rapid response activities offered by WDI to enable dislocated workers to transition to new employment quickly and successfully.

Alan's goal was to find a job in which he could feel a sense of accomplishment and feel like he was a valued part of a productive team. He worked closely with a WIOA Case Manager to establish goals, complete a quality resume, develop interviewing skills, and learn how to complete online applications and use email. He had not applied or interviewed for jobs since starting his career and he displayed a strong need for assistance in building basic job search skills. Alan continued to work closely with his WIOA Case Manager and he was referred to WOW WDI Employer Relations and featured in the WOW Factor in May. Efforts of the Employer Relations Team directly resulted in a dramatic increase in contacts and interviews for Alan.

Alan accepted a full-time Machinist position that meets his goals, and is earning $16.00 per hour. He said the job "feels right" and is just what he wanted.

Louisiana Workforce Commission LOGO

James and Cheri,* a young married couple with two children, came to Family Service Worker Karen Hill for help in August 2015. They were homeless and had been living behind a hotel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Karen knew that the first things they needed were food and shelter, and networking paid off right away. Many of the local shelters couldn't accommodate families, so Karen contacted Pastor Keith Richard of Living Waters Homeless Shelters who was able to help Karen find the family a room for several days. During their stay at Living Waters Homeless Shelters, Karen organized use of Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funds to pay the family's first month's rent for an apartment unit. She also worked in conjunction with the WIOA unit which helped locate employment for James and Cheri as well as other government agencies and community partners to help the family make use of many other human and economic services. With all of these combined resources, Karen was able to help James and Cheri move their family from a crisis situation to a stable living condition. To date, James has maintained employment and they have been successful renters for a year. Cheri is seeking employment while the children are on a waiting list to enroll in the East Baton Rouge Head Start program.

Services used:
CSBG - Rent; OSS - Food Pantry; WIOA - Job Search; Head Start - Education; EBRSO - Toys for Tots; Referral List - Living Waters Shelters.

*Names changed for privacy