Large swaths of Americans never have the life-changing opportunity to get their foot in the door of a company. But paid, work-based experience programs for diverse and underrepresented talent can be an effective way for companies to create these opportunities and advance equity.
Work-based experiences are highly beneficial for both prospective employees and businesses. They allow career seekers to gain on-the-job experience, in-demand skills, and a professional network. And they enable employers to proactively build talent pipelines and test potential employees before making a full-time offer.
Work-based experiences can take many forms, including:
formal, federally registered apprenticeship programs;
paid internship programs; and
job-shadow programs with local high schools, community colleges, or community-based organizations.
Why it works
Registered apprenticeships offer robust “learn and earn” opportunities, allowing people to access high-paying jobs without incurring student debt. For the duration of their apprenticeship, which can be years, apprentices earn money and work experience and receive training in the skills employers seek. In most cases, apprenticeships do not require applicants to have four-year degrees or even previous experience. What’s more, 91% of apprentices find full-time employment upon completing their apprenticeship.
Similarly, diversifying internship programs can significantly improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) outcomes in the private sector. Consider Year Up, a yearlong workforce training and internship program that has placed more than 20,000 students—primarily low-income young adults of color—in positions at more than 250 companies. After completing the program, Year Up graduates see earnings dramatically increase and remain 34% higher than peers’ earnings four years post-program.
In addition, every dollar spent on Year Up results in a societal gain of $1.66 in the form of graduate earnings, benefits and taxes, and revenue gains by firms that hire program graduates. Beyond financial returns, companies that host Year Up interns are investing in a pipeline of diverse talent, growing representation throughout the organization. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has hired nearly half of its 1,830 Year Up interns into full-time positions.
The adoption curve
Despite these wins, companies still have a ways to go in expanding and increasing the effectiveness of work-based experience programs. There are persistent racial and gender disparities in apprenticeship: Women and people of color often face discriminatory recruitment practices and lower enrollment rates, and end up in lower-wage occupations. Apprenticeships are also relatively rare in the US: Actively registered apprentices made up less than 1% of the working-age population in 2020, and most were highly concentrated in skilled trade industries.
Why are registered apprenticeships so uncommon? Many companies perceive them as difficult and costly to establish. But those with successful apprenticeship programs can help demystify the process and educate their peers on the benefits.
Internships that make meaningful DEI progress are also rare. The talent acquisition process often relies on college recruiting programs, which perpetuates a bias toward degree holders and limits access for noncollege candidates, working against DEI goals. Even when employers are inclusive of nontraditional candidates, their work-based experience programs are often very small. DEI champions will seek to expand internship programs through partnerships with community-based organizations and historically Black colleges and universities.
Businesses have a powerful opportunity to improve equity and advance DEI goals by rethinking work-based experiences. For some companies, this may mean repurposing an existing internship infrastructure, scaling their efforts to effectively recruit and support diverse interns. Other organizations will need to build programs from scratch, putting DEI at the center from the start.
How Aon, Accenture, and Zurich took action
A number of companies are joining forces to scale work-based experiences nationwide. The Chicago Apprentice Network founded by Aon, Accenture, and Zurich North America is a prime example. Focused on recruiting companies to join the apprenticeship movement, the network gives employers the peer advice and support they need to be successful. Since 2017, the network has grown to more than 50 companies and hosted more than 1,000 apprentices, with plans to scale to 10,000 apprentices by 2030.