According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)’s Discover Apprenticeship program, as of September 2020, “94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship program retain employment, with an average annual income of $70,000.”

However, access to apprenticeships is not equally distributed.

After analyzing data from the Office of Apprenticeship’s Registered Apprenticeship Partners Information Management Data System (RPIDS) database, the Center for American Progress found that in 2017, 92.7% of people completing registered apprenticeships were men and 7.3% were women. Further, 63.4% of individuals who completed registered apprenticeship programs were white, and 10.7% were Black or African American (20.5% did not disclose their race).

Deborah Kobes, a senior director at Jobs for the Future, Inc. (JFF) and deputy director of JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning, says we need to not only make these programs more accessible to people from marginalized groups but embed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals within them.

This is how TEKsystems, a full-stack technology and talent services provider, ended up partnering with Per Scholas, a nonprofit providing free training and access to employer networks to individuals often excluded from technical careers. “We had this chance to take our purpose and match it up with [Per Scholas’] mission to help train, educate and certify individuals who might have not otherwise gotten the opportunity to,” says Faith Johnson, vice president of human resources at TEKsystems. As 87% of Per Scholas students are people of color, compared to only 37% of the overall informational technology (IT) workforce, the partnership is helping minorities find jobs and employers find diverse, skilled talent. “It’s a win-win,” Johnson says.

Let’s explore how learning and development (L&D) can create equitable apprenticeships and other on-the-job training programs for a more inclusive future of work.

Bridging the Opportunity Gap

People of color, women and people with disabilities, among others from marginalized groups, have long faced barriers to valuable career opportunities. Systemic racism, sexism, ableism, the high cost of a college education and limited access to quality training have left many of these workers behind and contributed to a significant talent gap in many in-demand industries, such as manufacturing and technology.

Equitable apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs can help companies “move toward correcting decades, if not millennia, of disinvestment in those communities and people groups,” says Michael Russell, a national organizer and workshop facilitator at Crossroads, an antiracism organizing and training company. Kobes agrees that these programs can combat many of the factors that disproportionately impact minorities.

“Apprenticeships and work-based training programs are beneficial across all demographics,” says Nick Wyman, chief executive officer of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. “They are a pathway to meaningful and rewarding work and, if you wish, a stepping stone to many different segues and careers.”

A Group Effort

As with any training initiative, embedding DEI in apprenticeships can be a challenge. After all, L&D alone can’t erase the systemic challenges minorities face.  Fortunately, there are many community organizations dedicated to advancing workplace equity and inclusion. Wyman suggests partnering with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the community more broadly to recruit apprentices and learners from underrepresented groups. Find out “who’s doing the work” that aligns with your mission, and partner with them, Russell suggests.

Public-private partnerships can also help people with disabilities access quality training and jobs. For example, JFF partnered with the DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), Social Policy Research Associates and Ethos Strategic Consulting in 2019 to form the Apprenticeship Inclusion Models (AIM) initiative. AIM is designed to “expand pathways” for youth and adults with disabilities into well-paying careers by testing innovative recruitment and retention strategies with employers, unions and apprenticeship programs, according to the press release.

Combating systemic challenges and improving workplace equity is a group effort, and public-private partnerships can take the lead.

An Ongoing Commitment

Tackling discrimination and improving DEI is not a one-and-done process, Wyman says. DEI should remain a “conscious part of an organization’s continuous learning.” After partnering with community organizations and/or HBCUs to recruit diverse learners, Russell encourages companies to “keep the partnerships going.” Driving workplace equity through L&D takes a “real commitment,” he says. There has to be an “intentional investment” in DEI-driven learning programs that is “sustainable and sustained over time.”

Mentorship is one way to provide continued support for apprentices, Kobes says. For people who are “vastly underrepresented” within their organization or industry, “it’s hard to really see that you can succeed, because you don’t have examples of success around you.” Mentorship offers apprentices an advocate whom they can trust along their career journey.

Benefits for All

Pioneering a more equitable future of work is the right thing to do. But it also has numerous business benefits. For one, millennial and Generation Z professionals are increasingly turned off by employers without a diverse workforce and a clear commitment to DEI. Offering equitable apprenticeship and other work-based learning programs will help companies attract a diverse workforce and showcase their commitment to DEI.

Minorities also bring greater diversity of thought to companies, which is a key competitive advantage. Ogilvy, an advertising, marketing and public relations agency, realized this benefit firsthand. Its apprenticeship program, “The Pipe,” has helped it build a diverse team that reflects its audience, clients and customers.

“A truly diverse workforce can only benefit the business with better ideas, increased creativity and unique skills,” says Lauren Mollyneaux-Brow, an L&D partner with Ogilvy. Ogilvy launched the program in 2018 and relaunched it in 2020, bringing in 27 apprentices, 10 of whom they hired permanently after the apprenticeship was over. These employees brought in “much-needed future skills” and helped diversify Ogilvy’s workforce, Mollyneaux-Brown says.

As a learning leader, you know that proving the business impact of any training program is essential for sustaining it and gaining buy-in for future ones. Wyman encourages training professionals to “invest time and brain power” in developing meaningful metrics to prove the return on investment (ROI) of equitable apprenticeships. Savvy companies, he says, will look at measurables like the representation of women and people of color compared to the industry average, turnover and promotions across demographics, and employee engagement to assess the program’s impact. Align your DEI goals to business goals, he says, and keep stakeholders up to date on their progress.

In the end, “melding diversity and inclusion priorities in your business strategy sounds like a lot of work, and it definitely is,” Wyman says. But the ROI of an inclusive, equitable and skilled workforce is priceless.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited on 3/31/21 to more accurately reflect TEKsystem’s business.