Improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce will continue to be a main priority for American companies heading into the new year. Despite almost every company being focused on improving the workforce diversity of their companies and leadership, DEI goals continue to lag. Between 2014 and 2021, the tech industry saw just a 1% increase in Black representation within technical roles in large companies.

To help solve this challenge, employers need to reach for different solutions.

For decades, American corporations have relied on colleges and universities to do the lion’s share of training for the workforce. They reach into the same pool of talent with bachelor’s degrees from four-year universities for the jobs they need. Currently, 65% of jobs require some college experience or a bachelor’s degree. This practice disproportionately excludes Black and Hispanic Americans as 72% and 80% respectively do not currently hold a degree. And as the cost of college rises each semester, we are seeing more and more adults opt out of school, many of them people of color.

Building an alternative to college and corporate training that allows students to reach high-earning careers without any debt is critical in the U.S.: Enter apprenticeships. The vision for apprenticeships is not just a “nice-to-have” alternate pathway for a few students, but instead to help create a more diverse group of future leaders.

A Debt-free Model To Democratize Access To High-paying Careers

Apprenticeships are a structured learning program that help inexperienced learners (the apprentice) work with a seasoned professional to gain practical, on-the-job skills. They can help ensure racial and gender equity and more diverse hiring practices. These hands-on learning programs shift the cost away from the individual and instead to the company to find promising candidates and train them in much-needed skills. In doing so, companies can remove one of the most damaging gatekeepers to great careers: existing wealth or the ability to take on the debt of four-year college degrees.

By providing young adults with the opportunity to jumpstart their careers, without the looming burden of having to pay off student loans, apprenticeships address the issue of inequity by offering a solution that is sustainable and can create long-lasting change.

And companies can benefit from this too. In a study, 87% of senior executives said that their companies are unprepared to address digital skill gaps. By creating an entirely new hiring process, companies can reach incredibly talented individuals who have been overlooked because of their lack of a degree, thereby addressing their immediate talent needs. In a Fortune article, Julie Elberfeld writes that the tech talent shortage plaguing most tech companies is a self-inflicted wound that could be, at least in part, addressed by reaching the over 70 million workers who were skilled outside of traditional education pathways.

Built on What You Can Do, Not What You Know

Apprenticeships also have the potential to deliver an educational revolution that can disrupt careers. Built for on-the-job training, apprenticeships ensure that skills are embedded through immediate professional practice. With this model, the gap between classroom and application, during which so much learning gets forgotten, simply does not exist.

While success in education depends on acing exams and papers, applied learning through apprenticeships ensures you can actually do the fundamental tasks to succeed in a career. There are benefits to the employers, too: Applied learning means managers can benefit from immediate productivity boosts. Evidence shows that applied learning can be a better form of learning than passive classroom learning and directly link to the skills and behaviors needed by corporate America.

The idea that education occurs in a silo for four years before a student is expected to apply their learning to a job just doesn’t make sense — and often it means that within five years, more skills need to be learned to stay relevant, particularly with technology transforming the needs of employers. Apprenticeships can fix that and therefore offer those with nontraditional backgrounds a pathway into high-growth careers.

Helping Front-line Workers Reach the Boardroom

We’ve covered how apprenticeships can build an alternative pathway to enter a career, but apprenticeships can also provide reskilling and upskilling opportunities on more up-to-date or new skill sets. More and more global companies are providing solutions to reskill front-line workers, from tuition reimbursement to career coaches. And providing career mobility pathways can help benefit companies with higher employee retention and engagement.

Not only can apprenticeships help reskill employees, but also they can provide the opportunity for those who’ve taken a break from the workforce and/or entering a new industry. For example, Citi Group launched a Return to Work Program designed for women who’re returning from a career break to reenter or enter the financial services industry. Not only does a program like this benefit the individuals who are ready to begin working again, but it also helps Citi Group hire and train talented professionals.

Each apprenticeship provides a huge opportunity: an individual American achieving a debt-free route to a successful career. But the real prize is a fundamental readjustment in how we approach access to the best careers and address the growing skill gaps. In doing so, apprenticeships can solve two of the biggest challenges facing the workforce today: DEI in the workforce and the tech talent shortage.

There’s been an influx of investment and interest in this topic from the White House, employers and organizations that are working to close the opportunity gap for Black talent in America. However, we still have work to do when it comes to dismantling the current ideology that college is the only pathway to success so that we can open up opportunities for all Americans.