By Mandana Nakhai | Development Manager
The Covid pandemic has tested our endurance as a nation as it morphs and evolves, season after season. As resilient individuals and organizations, we push ahead, trying to make sense of these changes. This meaning-making is part of being human, and it’s critical to survival. But as different interpretations of events come up against—and flow through—power, narratives arise that hold immense potential to enable or slow down transformative social change.
Even before the pandemic, the status quo was challenged in an attempt to create credible alternatives to the “college-for-all” narrative, involving employers in education and imbuing new training pathways to career. Since 2016, CareerWise’s youth apprenticeship model has invited stakeholders to flip expectations about the ways that young people can enter and thrive in careers beyond the high school-to-college pipeline. But with the pandemic’s destruction of jobs, education opportunities and tenuous grasps on stability, especially for low-income communities and those of color, it’s been harder to ignore calls for change. Today dominant narratives about how siloed education and employment sectors can and should enable economic mobility are being especially disrupted.
With attention on economic and social inequities underscored by the pandemic, newer training models that increase economic mobility, like apprenticeship, are finding a spotlight. Earn-and-learn work-based models are pushing against the boundaries of what’s possible; our understanding of just how far they might succeed in doing so is, in turn, shaped by meaning-making of the pandemic crisis at large.
By mid-2020, the talk of recovery had begun. Despite, and perhaps because of, initial concern about the risks of the economic downturn on investment in the youth apprenticeship model, it was quickly framed as a tool for recovery, an intervention to pave the road back to health. It was also invoked as a harm-reduction strategy to lessen the risk that youth would experience the same long-term economic stunting as they did after the Great Recession.
Soon, “recovery” shifted to “building back better,” as the socioeconomic cracks in our pre-pandemic economy were made apparent through social protests and unrest around the country. “Building back better” makes possible the reform of institutions that hold power to expand access to and success within careers to more young people. And, it justifies greater investment in and validation of evidence-based models, like youth apprenticeship, that can strengthen already emerging links between youth, education and careers. Such investment includes the Biden administration’s aptly named Build Back Better agenda, which promises to reinvigorate the national registered apprenticeship system to accommodate diverse participants, including youth, in knowledge-economy industries typically not addressed apprenticeship.
Now, in the midst of another return to school, another spike, and growing understanding that we are not “back” yet, a new meaning-making story is taking hold. The realization that society will “never be the same,” that we can no longer return to the pre-pandemic is coming into focus. When we committed to building back better, we made clear that old ways aren’t enough. But this moment is different, because it encourages not just improvement on the old, but fundamentally reimagining it.