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RespectAbility Joins National Dialogue on Registered Apprenticeships

Washington, D.C., September 6 – As of July 2022, there were more than 11 million job openings across the nation’s labor market. One of the ways that employers are looking to onboard new talent and expand good paying jobs is through the continued expansion of registered apprenticeship programs. As of 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor reported more than 636,000 apprentices participating in more than 26,000 different programs nationwide. However, many of those programs have historically been inaccessible to workers with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Labor is seeking to making the nation’s apprenticeship system more accessible, inclusive, and successful for thousands of new workers in the labor market. In order to address these challenges, the Department is currently hosting an online, national policy dialogue about apprenticeships.

In response, the policy professionals of RespectAbility, a national nonpartisan inclusion organization, contributed to the ePolicyWorks dialogue, advising the government and employers on lessons learned from their own efforts as an employer and on proven practices from across the country.

“RespectAbility is excited to once again virtually participate in a dynamic online conversation about best practices, proven models, and practical lessons on making apprenticeships work for jobseekers with and without disabilities,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli, RespectAbility’s Director of Federal Policy. “The continuing focus on ‘earn-and-learn’ models offers jobseekers the chance to hone their skills while also earning a paycheck. Improving these programs will make the workforce more equitable, improve employment outcomes, and give more people with or without disabilities a chance to pursue their own American Dream.”

Highlights of RespectAbility’s recommendations include:

  • Lessons Learned from RespectAbility’s own Apprenticeship Program.
  • Communicating Expectations, Dividing Deadlines and Allocating Assignments.
  • Lessons Learned from the Switch to Remote Work.
  • Connecting Existing Registered Apprenticeship Programs to Disability Service Providers.
  • Cohort Based Models – Building Community While “Earning and Learning”.
  • Clearly Communicate How Apprenticeships are Different from Internships
  • Use the Apprenticeship Model to Channel Talented People with and without Disabilities into Civil Service.

The deadline to participate in this important online policy dialogue has been extended to September 6, 2022. Please visit, register, and participate at the IdeaScale website.

The Full Text of RespectAbility’s submissions can be found below:

Lessons Learned from RespectAbility’s own Apprenticeship Program

Over the course of the past 9 years, RespectAbility has itself trained, mentored, and prepared more than 250 young professionals with disabilities for exciting job opportunities in a variety of career fields. We are proud to report a successful placement rate of more than 85 percent, with program participants going on to jobs in public service, the private sector, and a variety of top-tier post-graduate degree programs. In 2016, we began offering paid learning opportunities. In 2020, we took our program fully remote. And now, all of our Apprentices are receiving $17 per hour, plus training, mentoring, and support in their job search.

We share this information not to idly boast about what we have done, but rather to speak to our credibility and organizational knowledge about training workers with disabilities for success. You can learn more about our Apprenticeship program at our website.

Reflecting on this work, RespectAbility’s staff has identified the following three key components to our work, and we believe them to be broadly applicable to other formal apprenticeship programs:

  1. In-House Experience: From the beginning, our National Leadership Program has focused on ensuring that our learners are engaged in working on real, substantive projects that directly advance our organizational mission. They contribute to grant-reportable outcomes, ensuring that program participants know that their individual work matters and that they are getting a professional experience different than they would at a normal internship. Likewise, this helps burnish their future professional credentials by offering them specific accomplishments that they can highlight in future job applications. To generalize from there, apprenticeships that focus on real wages for real work offer participants a tangible result of their work and help create a foundation for future success.
  2. Professional Connections and Networking: The second key component of our own program is the work of connecting program participants to later-career professionals to act as mentors and future guides on their career journeys. Even in career fields less focused on interpersonal connections and relationships, being taught how to network and building a professional network is crucial to finding future career opportunities. We do this for our own National Leadership Program participants by both bringing in external speakers from a wide variety of career fields and supporting participants to build their own professional networks through informational interviews with outside organizations. This approach has been crucial to the placement success of many of our people.
  3. Identification of Needs and Providing Reasonable Accommodations: Our program’s focus on training young professionals with disabilities means we have developed deep organizational experience assessing accommodation needs and providing reasonable accommodations for our workers. We have found that helping a disabled worker clearly identify their reasonable accommodation needs before they make the jump to their first full-time job or position with significant responsibilities is important. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans are different than reasonable accommodations provided by an employer under the requirements of the ADA. For example, a student who has had time and a half on written test throughout their academic career may not necessarily be able to get extra time if they are tasked with meeting a crucial work deadline. As such, adjustments are necessary and time to adequate assess accommodation needs is critical.

Communicating Expectations, Dividing Deadlines and Allocating Assignments

Clear communication is at the heart of effective employer-employee relationships. This is especially important in workplaces that are prioritizing the talents and skills of workers with disabilities. The entire approach that an employer takes to assigning work, defining deadlines, and determining assignments needs to be clear for all involved. Particularly when it comes to deadlines and dividing work, care needs to be taken in recognizing how an individual’s disability might impact their work or any accommodations that are already in place to help that worker succeed.

Lessons Learned from the Switch to Remote Work

The pandemic has made remote work an accepted reality for thousands of workers, normalizing a common reasonable accommodation request long championed by workers with disabilities. Microsoft has dramatically expanded their accessibility features, including built-in speech to text technology which makes it possible for people with even the most limited mobility to use computers. This has opened an unprecedented window for people with disabilities to contribute to the success of nonprofits, communities, and beyond. Remote work also has great promise at expanding apprenticeship programs into more diverse sectors of the nation’s economy, especially the knowledge economy.

RespectAbility has retooled our own National Leadership Program from being a cohort-based internship program located in Washington D.C., into an all-virtual, work-from-anywhere skills-based training program. The most direct consequence was that we significantly expanded our recruiting pool of prospective program participants. We can now recruit and hire from disability community members anywhere in the United States. While we had already made significant efforts to recruit diverse candidates for our program, being able to recruit candidates from anywhere has greatly improved our program and opened new opportunities to those who might never have had the chance or resources to do a D.C.-based internship. Likewise, expanding the funding support to increase National Leadership Program participant pay also directly opened new opportunities for recruitment.

In terms of making remote work successful, having multiple open lines of communication has been critical. Whether we are talking about daily Zoom meetings, text messaging, or emails, ensuring that open lines of communication exist between participants, leaders, and staff is critical. Likewise, budgeting to ensure that all participants have the technology they need to participate is also important.

Connecting Existing Registered Apprenticeship Programs to Disability Service Providers

Over the course of the past several years, RespectAbility’s advocacy agenda has had a strong focus on state workforce development systems and raising awareness about disability issues among state workforce leaders. A consistent theme we have heard from workforce boards across the country has been limited understanding of disability services and how a jobseeker with disabilities might benefit from coordinated services/supports. For example, much of our collaborative work in Los Angeles over the past several years has been focused on bridging gaps between workforce providers and disability service agencies. That type of interagency cooperation can be difficult but ultimately rewarding. As such, if the national registered apprenticeship system is to become more inclusive of workers with disabilities, ensuring that programs proactively build connections to disability service providers is important. 

Cohort Based Models – Building Community While “Earning and Learning”

The importance of community and collaboration among apprentices in an apprenticeship program cannot be understated. Humans are social creatures. A successful workplace will be one that supports individuals in bringing their full authentic selves to work, and one that enables them to work together with others to solve collective problems. That sense of community and collaboration has been a feature of RespectAbility’s own National Leadership Program from the very beginning. From a management perspective, building community among your apprentices depends on giving those program participants the chance to solve problems together, allowing leaders to emerge. Our staff has seen this play out time and time again with apprentices in new cohorts taking the initiative to solve collective tasks, support each other when there are gaps in skills, or working together on complicated professional problems. Where possible, apprenticeship program curriculums should be written to include chances for the participants themselves to build community, collaborate and solve problems together.

Clearly Communicate How Apprenticeships are Different from Internships

Given the volatility of the job market post COVID-19, it is important that registered apprenticeship programs make the effort to attract new recruits by clearly communicating to the public the benefits that they offer. The communication challenges and public attitudes about apprenticeships have been well documented by other advocacy organizations but it is a factor worth considering. How do specific programs recruit their apprentices? How do they talk to prospective students about the value and pay of an apprenticeship? How do they make the financial case? These are ideas that need to be communicated to candidates and their family members.

Use the Apprenticeship Model to Channel Talented People with and without Disabilities into Civil Service

Naturally, the private sector has made good use of registered apprenticeships in recent years to recruit, train and employ talented workers. As of 2020, the Department of Labor reported more than 636,000 apprentices in more than 26,000 different programs nationwide. That said, there is an opportunity for the federal government and state agencies to also benefit from the advantage conferred by apprentices.

There are approximately 2 million federal jobs and there are estimated to be nearly 5 million jobs in state government. This is a huge pool of opportunities in all 50 states across a vast range of career fields. As such, federal agencies and states should seriously consider how they recruit and hire new workers, especially as Baby Boomers retire and Millennials advance in their careers. Apprenticeships offer a path to get transition-age workers, workers with non-traditional backgrounds, and others into good paying jobs with training to help them succeed. Instead of only sticking with traditional university degree-oriented career paths, government should explore and pilot how to use the apprenticeship model to train the next generation of career civil servants.

On a related note, as highlighted in a recent report by the Council of State Governments (CSG), “20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted… ‘state as a model employer’ (SAME) policies. They have had much success leveraging these policies to recruit, hire, retain, and promote talented workers with disabilities.” More details can be found in the report.

As the federal government looks at current staffing challenges and its own equity priorities, apprenticeships are a valuable tool to use.

Other Examples of Cohort Based Models for Youth with Disabilities

Further, cohort-based models offer a cost-effective method for delivering workforce services, especially for transition aged youth with disabilities. Instead of the inefficient method of one-on-one client services typified by the usual vocational rehabilitation service system, cohorts offer the chance to blend and braid funding to support training and build in a social component among cohort participants crucial to soft-skill development. As such, we recommend that professionals involved with the provisions of Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) examine proven models of cohort-based services and look to build on models such as: 

Project RISE in Virginia: Project RISE (Resilience, Independence, Self-Advocacy, Employment), sponsored with the support of the Virginia Chapter of National Federation for the Blind, is a cohort based, skill development focused training program for blind and low vision students ages 14-21. Over the course of a 10-month program, students are trained in independent living skills and in professional skills for use in future employment. Students build social connection, even in virtual spaces by connecting and collaborating with fellow program participants. Working with each student, educational and career goals are developed and supported through internship or volunteer placement. For more information about RISE, please visit https://www.nfbv.org/rise

Transitions to Work JVS Boston: Transitions to Work JVS Boston is a transitional vocational employment program for those with disabilities living in the greater Boston metropolitan area. Critically, it is an employer focused program with extensive onsite job training and leverages non-disabled coworkers as peer coaches for each participant. The training cohort is built around seven trainings sessions throughout the year and an intensive twelve-week training on skills needed for customer facing job roles. Benefits counseling are also a key topic covered in the training. For more information and videos detailing this program’s successes, please visit https://www.jvs-boston.org/our-services/disability-employment-transitions-work/transitions-to-work/

Project SEARCH and the Caring Economy: Project SEARCH is a school-to-work transition program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that prepares them for good paying careers in hospitals, elder-care, and the caring economy. By placing students with disabilities into three internships at a job site over the course of an academic year, student learn skills, build their confidence, and gain competitive work experience. There are already SEARCH sites in 47 states and territories. However, given the widespread shortage in direct care professionals to work in elder care facilities, there is a serious opportunity to expand Project SEARCH and help more job seekers with disabilities launch careers in the caring economy. Critically, we also believe that there is serious professional development value in taking workforce professionals from other programs to a SEARCH site and facilitating the chance to more about the SEARCH model. To learn more, please visit https://www.projectsearch.us/learn-about-our-book/

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