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Op-Ed: Higher Minimum Wage, Apprenticeships Are Keys to American Dream in NJ

We must expand opportunities for people to get jobs that pay a living wage without incurring substantial amounts of debt

Demelza Baer
Demelza Baer

Despite our nation’s historically low unemployment rate, people across New Jersey and the county are struggling and anxious about their family’s economic situations — and whether their children will have access to the American dream. While there are plenty of jobs available, many of these jobs do not pay a living wage or provide benefits like health insurance (which is probably why it was the number one issue for voters). In fact, our country is experiencing levels of inequality not seen since the Great Depression era, nearly one hundred years ago.

Moreover, this inequality is much worse for people of color, with former President Obama calling economic justice the “unfinished business” of the civil rights movement. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said fifty years ago, “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

These are serious challenges, but we have two proven solutions that could position New Jersey as a national bright light for economic mobility: one, expand inclusive apprenticeship programs, particularly in high-growth industries; and two, raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Not only will these policies promote economic mobility for all people, they will also reduce inequality for women and people of color.

Women and people of color have lost out

First, we must create more opportunities for people to access careers that pay a living wage without incurring substantial amounts of debt — primarily by expanding apprenticeship programs. This is National Apprenticeship Week, and as laid out in our latest report, Becoming the United States of Opportunity: the Economic Equity and Growth Case for Apprenticeships, these programs are a win-win for employees, employers, and the economy.

Apprenticeship programs provide businesses with a dedicated pipeline of employees specifically trained to their needs, while enabling participants to earn an increasing salary and an industry-recognized credential or degree while in training. At the end of a federally-registered apprenticeship program, 91 percent of participants find a job at an average annual salary of about $60,000.

Unfortunately, these opportunities have been largely closed to women and people of color. In 2016, women were only 5.6 percent of federally-registered apprentices, and both women and people of color tend to be occupationally segregated in the lowest-paying apprenticeship programs and to experience harassment and discrimination.

Our report provides a comprehensive list of policy recommendations to create a truly inclusive state apprenticeship program, and several New Jersey state legislators led by Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz recently introduced a package of bills that would implement those recommendations.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz has led on the issue

Under Sen. Ruiz’s leadership, New Jersey is set to become a national model for an inclusive apprenticeship program, which would expand the use of apprenticeship programs in high-growth industries, waive tuition fees for apprentices who cannot afford them, provide businesses with tax credits to start or expand programs, create a statewide plan to diversify apprenticeships and provide additional mentoring, and give direct assistance to apprentices who face child care or transportation barriers to participating in their program.

The introduction of this legislation happened alongside the announcement of $4.5 million in grants from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development to support and expand apprenticeship programs in high-growth and nontraditional industries in the state, and following Gov. Phil Murphy’s creation of the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network and signing of an agreement with the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce to collaborate on apprenticeships. Once Sen. Ruiz’s legislation is enacted, and following the governor’s executive action, New Jersey will be a model for other states and the federal government on how to expand the use of apprenticeships through this equity lens.

Second, we must ensure that people earn a living wage for their work. In New Jersey, the current minimum wage is only $8.60 per hour, and a person working 40 hours a week for all 52 weeks of the year would only earn $17,888 annually — an income barely above the federal poverty level for a household of two people. Women and people of color are disproportionately earning the minimum wage, which contributes to our state’s staggering wage gaps by gender and race. Big picture, though — everyone is struggling. Nearly 40 percent of New Jersey residents cannot afford basic necessities, like food, rent, and healthcare. And, when you’re juggling bills and living month-to-month, you certainly cannot save money, which is why more than four in 10 adults nationally do not even have $400 to cover an emergency expense.

Three states have already enacted $15 minimum

Last week, the people of Arkansas and Missouri overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to raise their states’ minimum wages. New Jersey should become the fourth state in the nation to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, following the lead of California, Massachusetts, and New York, while pegging future increases to inflation to ensure that pay isn’t eroded over time.

Since raising the minimum wage and expanding apprenticeship programs are top priorities for both Gov. Murphy and the Legislature, both issues should advance quickly to floor votes, and be signed into law.

As we all work together to create more economic opportunity and ensure that all people are paid a living wage for their work, our state — and the nation — will come closer to embodying its promise of being the United States of opportunity for all.

Demelza Baer is senior counsel and director of the Economic Mobility Initiative for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. She is the author of the groundbreaking report, Bridging the Two Americas: Employment & Economic Opportunity in Newark & Beyond.

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