Photography by LYDIA THOMPSON
Writing by Serena Lei; LYDIA THOMPSON
In her lowest moments, Elise Feldt believed the doubters who said she should give up her kids. She was a 25-year-old single mother working two jobs and often went days without seeing her boys, who were left in their grandmother’s care as Elise worked. Still, she could barely afford her rent and counted on church donations of food for her family.
“I was close to crushing defeat several times,” she said. “It’s hard being at that moment where you wonder if people are right, if you do need to give up your kids… I just needed to know they were going to be okay.”
Though she excelled in high school, Elise dropped out of college at 19 when she became pregnant with her first son, Everett. It was her first step off the traditional college-to-career path she had always envisioned, and returning to that path became harder and more impractical the longer she was away.
Only 56 percent of students who are enrolled at four-year colleges get a degree after six years. In a Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of adults ages 18 to 34 who do not have a bachelor’s degree said that a major reason for not continuing their education is their need to support their family; about half of all surveyed said they can’t afford to go to college. And many students, whether they graduate or not, end up saddled with crushing tuition debt.
For Elise and many others, the path to getting job skills, an education, and a career wasn’t college—it was an apprenticeship.
After Everett was born, Elise and Everett’s father married and had a second son, Avi. Although Elise worked on and off during their marriage, her job prospects were slim without a college degree. When they divorced, Elise struggled to support her family alone.
When her uncle told her about The Apprentice School, a vocational school founded by Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, Elise was excited by the idea and hoped an apprenticeship would give her and her family more stability and a better home life. She applied and was accepted as a pipe fitter in 2011.
Through her apprenticeship, Elise learned job skills through college courses while receiving on-the-job training. Rather than paying tuition, students are paid for their work (the minimum salary at the end of the four-year program is $56,000) and receive benefits. Graduates are guaranteed a job with Newport News Shipbuilding, which builds aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy as a division of military contractor Huntington Ingalls Industries.
“They give us firsthand, real-world experience,” Elise said. She would take what she learned in class—math, ship design, and programming skills—and apply it directly to her job. “Slowly but surely you become more and more knowledgeable and it builds on itself. It’s such an efficient way of going about teaching someone.”
More important for Elise, the apprenticeship gave her the time and financial resources to take care of her kids. What she may not have known is that the work was also good for her health and the health of her family.
In February, Elise sat in the dining room of her home watching her son Avi, 9, spoon a heap of Cinnamon Toast Crunch into his mouth. Avi broke the silence and murmured something to her. Her eyes lit up, and together they giggled at his joke. Five years ago, these quiet moments between Elise and her two sons were rare.
Back then, working full-time at Ace Hardware and on weekends as a waitress and bartender left her with little time or energy. Some days she only saw her kids long enough to tuck them into bed, and she could see how her exhaustion and stress were affecting them.
Better jobs and better health are connected in many ways, each reinforcing the other. As a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation explains, “evening and night shifts, holding multiple jobs, long work hours and excessive overtime work can be detrimental to health.” These traits, which are common among those with low-wage jobs, can wear on people, affecting their health and their ability to care for the health and well-being of their children.
On the other hand, stable, well-paying work is good for your health. Steady employment and higher earnings allow families to afford healthy food, homes in safe neighborhoods, quality child care, and other advantages that translate into stability and better health.
As an apprentice, Elise works and attends classes within a regular 40-hour workweek, leaving her time to spend with her children. She earned enough to move her family to a better apartment in a neighborhood with a swimming pool the boys could use. “I wanted to move to someplace where they would feel safe to play outside,” she said.
A few years later, she remarried and moved with the boys into a new house with her husband Richard.
“The Apprentice School saved my family,” Elise said. “My family life is a lot more stable now… I get to come home and help my kids with their homework. Sometimes they even help me a little bit with my homework…. It’s been a chance to build a home and a home life.”
Not all employers have the benefit of Navy contracts to support their apprenticeships. In 2015, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Labor was awarding $175 million in grants to expand apprenticeships in high-growth and high-tech industries, such as health care and information technology.
Apprenticeships should be expanded because they work, said Robert I. Lerman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Research shows that they are highly cost-effective and smooth the transition from school to work. And countries with robust apprenticeship systems have lower youth unemployment rates.
“In most professions, the ‘learning-by-doing’ model is good,” Lerman said. For employers, apprenticeships are “sort of a tryout employment. And very often, the apprentices have a greater commitment to the firm.”
Communities also benefit because apprenticeships help develop a skilled workforce, connect schools to businesses, and build a stronger foundation for a more productive local economy.
After two years as a pipe fitter, Elise was accepted into an advanced program at The Apprentice School. She’s now studying modeling and simulation and is nearly done with her associate’s degree. She is also active in student government at the school and, last year, was the chair of the publications committee. After her apprenticeship ends, she plans to continue working for Newport News Shipbuilding.
“I came in not knowing anything…but being very eager to learn,” Elise said. “It was a great opportunity for me to stretch myself and see where I could go because they were willing to…walk with me the whole way.”