By Eric Seleznow, Senior Advisor, JFF

Many employers, from manufacturing to healthcare to IT, want workers who have the specific skills and competencies needed to quickly succeed on the job. But many workers in the US, especially those in entry-level positions, just don’t have the skills employers seek.

While businesses are trying to manage this gap, they are also facing the need to diversify their workforce to reflect their communities and customers. Although these challenges may appear separate, they can in fact both be addressed through work-based learning.

Work-based learning (WBL) can take on many forms, from job shadowing and internships to more in-depth, Registered Apprenticeship models. Real-time, on-the-job learning allows employers to have an active hand in training their pipeline of workers. This highly structured learning coupled with related training and instruction allows people to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience coveted by employers. At the same time, they are actively participating in the workforce and helping the company’s bottom line. Many work-based learners go on to join the workforce with the skills and competencies of more experienced workers and with credentials that can be equivalent to 2- or 4-year degrees.

The TechHire grants allow wages to be paid for internships or offered for paid work experience. Apprenticeships, in particular, offer participants both a livable wage and the opportunity for participants to gain valuable skills and knowledge. Several TechHire grantees, including Flying High, Inc. and Worksystems, Inc., have integrated apprenticeships into their training design.

Through these strategies – and others – training programs can play a critical role in building a more diverse talent pipeline. The promise of WBL is substantial. But without an intentional focus on diversity, many underrepresented and traditionally disenfranchised populations (including people of color, women, veterans, people with disabilities, and opportunity youth) continue to be left out of workforce opportunities and high-quality WBL experiences that can serve as stepping stones to increased economic opportunities.

In 2016, the Department of Labor released a report: just 5.6 percent of apprentices were women, 10.1 percent were Black, and 22.3 percent were Hispanic. Moreover, apprentices who are women and people of color earn less than their male and white counterparts. Addressing these issues calls for purposeful and intentional strategies.

This inadequate track record is compounded in a traditionally homogenous sector such as technology. The US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission wrote in 2014 that the makeup of the tech sector was 68.5 percent white and 64 percent male. By acknowledging that diversity won’t just “happen” in either the tech sector or WBL programs such as apprenticeships, we can begin to put structures in place to ensure economic opportunities for all and to provide employers with a diverse pipeline that will be critical to their future success.

In a recent paper, we outlined several proven methods for increasing and supporting equity and diversity in WBL programs:

  1. Intentionally target diverse populations in recruitment efforts. Reach out to a wide range of partners (such as community colleges, workforce boards, community-based organizations, neighborhood centers, affordable housing groups, etc.) for their help in reaching specific populations with information.
  2. Show diversity in your recruitment and marketing materials. Try and show different races, genders, ages, etc., to reflect the workforce you want to have.
  3. Create supportive work environments. Pair learners with mentors and invest in support services for those who need it.

Employer support is also a critical ingredient for success. Nationwide, several employers are already taking the lead in using work-based learning strategies to grow their talent pool and diversify their workforce:

  • Aon: This global insurance and business services firm in Chicago modified its recruitment strategy by specifically reaching out to their City Colleges to hire apprentices directly from the community it serves, which often includes individuals with barriers to employment.
  • Techtonic Group: A software and applications company in Colorado recruits directly from their public workforce system to increase apprenticeship opportunities for women, people of color, youth, and veterans to enter the information technology workforce.
  • Southwire: A leading manufacturer of wire and cable in Carrolton, Georgia, operates the 12 for Life program. This successful work-based learning program for at-risk high school students provides classroom instruction, on-the-job training, mentoring, and employment opportunities that helps students graduate and go on to become skilled, successful, and productive members of the workforce.

We know that equity is not just a benefit for employers but will in fact be essential for their continued success. It is imperative, then, that we include an intentional focus on equity when developing our WBL programs in order to truly reach the promise of work-based learning for employers and job seekers alike.

For more information on diversity and WBL, I encourage you to watch the recording of our Sept. 5 webinar to TechHire grantees, “Engaging Employers to Support Work-Based Learning as a Strategy to Diversify the Talent Pipeline.” I was joined by John Shaw, Research and Strategic Initiatives Manager at the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and Paul Spivey, Bossier Parrish Community College to discuss these issues and explore potential solutions.



Engaging Employers to Support Work-Based Learning as a Strategy to Diversify the Talent Pipeline, TechHire – A webinar exploring potential opportunities to diversify talent through WBL.

Becoming the United States of Opportunity, The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice - How apprenticeship programs can strengthen our economy and advance economic opportunity by connecting residents—particularly women and people of color—to living wage careers.

Making Work-Based Learning Work, JFF – Explores JFF’s seven principles for effective work-based learning.

Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning – An online resource center.