According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 U.S. adults are living with a disability. Despite making up 25% of the U.S. adult population, however, as of November 2022, only 38.8% of people with disabilities were in the workforce, compared to 76.9% of people without a disability.

Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute for Workforce Skills and Innovation (IWSI) America, says that there’s a whole set of talent looking for opportunities but that remains sidelined due to misconceptions about hiring and training people with disabilities. For example, one major misconception is that it’s costly to provide accommodations to employees with disabilities. In reality, though, the Job Accommodation Network (JAM) found that more than one-half of requested accommodations cost nothing, and most accommodations that do have a cost are less than $500.

These misconceptions have led to a “huge disparity,” Wyman says, which is commonly referred to as “the disability employment gap.”

Let’s consider how apprenticeships can help bridge the gap by teaching in-demand skills and connecting apprentices to meaningful employment opportunities.

A New Era for Apprenticeship

The apprenticeship model isn’t new. In fact, the origin of apprenticeship dates back to before the Industrial Revolution, when knowledge and skills were transmitted across generations through collaborative, hands-on learning between a skilled expert and a novice.

Since then, registered apprenticeships — which are officially approved by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship or by a state’s apprenticeship agency — have become a popular work-based learning option. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, nearly 600,000 people took part in roughly 27,3000 registered apprenticeship programs in 2022.

Although apprenticeships aren’t new, Doug Keast, a project manager at the National Disability Institute (NDI) says, “We’re entering a new era for apprenticeship.”

In the past, apprenticeships were primarily used in the building trades to train people to work as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and in similar positions, Keast says. However, “With national expansion efforts going on in nearly every state, [apprenticeships] are growing in areas including health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and other human service worker [industries].”

Priya Ramanathan, vice president of government and workforce partnerships at General Assembly, echoes this sentiment, adding that the technology field has also started using apprenticeships to train people from diverse backgrounds on in-demand skills, which works to not only bridge the growing tech skills gap but also to diversify the field.

Why They Work

Modern apprenticeship programs are an effective way to train people with disabilities (and people from all backgrounds) for numerous reasons. For instance, they can help to:

  • Break down barriers: Priya Ramanathan, vice president of government and workforce partnerships at General Assembly, says that people with disabilities “often are not even considered” for in-demand job roles. Employers can help break down these barriers by either creating their own apprenticeship program designed for people with disabilities (and for other people from diverse groups) or by partnering with a third-party registered apprenticeship provider that works closely with people with disabilities.
  • Provide greater support: Apprenticeship programs typically offer wraparound support for learners, including access to coaches and mentors who can provide feedback on their performance. This not only benefits learners, but also gives employers insight into the type of support that learners will need to be successful on the job, Ramanathan says.
  • Offer on-the-job — and classroom-based — learning: A typical registered on-the-job training (OJT) apprenticeship program requires learners to complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of OJT (typically over the course of four years, but in some cases in less than one year or up to six years) in order to develop the competencies needed to perform a job effectively, Keast says. It also requires a minimum of 144 hours of related classroom instruction per year to “support the development of the required competencies for the position.”

Apprenticeships also offer tangible business benefits. Keast explains, “Some of the documented benefits of registered apprenticeships for the employer include reduced turnover, increased productivity and safety, lower costs for recruitment, increased diversity and, I think most importantly, a skilled workforce that’s trained to the employer’s specifications.”

Best Practices and Recommendations

To support both individuals with disabilities and the business, apprenticeships (like all learning initiatives) must be strategically designed according to business needs. Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Partner for success: If your training budget allows, partnering with a third-party registered apprenticeship provider can help to “scaffold” your program, says Ramanathan, by providing a set structure complete with classroom-based learning as well as OJT which learners can complete in your work environment. Partnering with an apprenticeship provider also allows you to tap into a wider talent pool, which is key in finding and training people with disabilities.
  • Provide coaching and mentoring: All learners benefit from coaching and/or mentoring throughout the learning process, but this is often even more true for individuals with disabilities, who may benefit from additional one-on-one support and advocacy in the workplace. Coaching and mentoring, Wyman says, is the “secret sauce” that can help apprentices not just land a job after program completion but keep that job — and thrive in it.
  • Train all employees, including managers, to act inclusively: Apprenticeships are a great way to train individuals with disabilities and connect them with meaningful job opportunities. However, it’s vital that the work environment they move into is an inclusive one. Thus, training all employees, and especially managers, on common misconceptions and biases related to people with disabilities, can go a long way in creating a supportive work environment.

The disability employment gap ultimately holds back people with disabilities and businesses from reaching their goals. By leveraging apprenticeships to train people with disabilities for in-demand job roles, companies can bridge skills gaps while also benefiting from a more diverse workforce — and that’s a win for everyone.