Urban Wire How Intermediaries Can Help Apprenticeships Offer More Structure and Support
Wesley Jenkins
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For the first three decades of his life, Matt Fitzpatrick lived with undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder and had what he called a “disastrous” experience finding work. He had trouble with the daily interactions that happen at an office, often struggling to understand what people were expecting from him unless it was clearly spelled out. Every new work environment quickly became overwhelming and stressful, and he was often terrified to go into work in the morning.

For autistic people like Fitzpatrick, finding and retaining employment can be a major hurdle. Only 58 percent of autistic people  have worked by the time they reach their early twenties, and multiple studies have indicated that autistic people are underemployed. Before his diagnosis, Fitzpatrick remembers he could only last a week or two at a new job, with one job in particular stressing him to the point of crying under his desk.

In 2019, after his diagnosis, Fitzpatrick began working at auticon—a German company that seeks to provide autistic people employment opportunities in technology roles—as an apprentice in its Los Angeles office. After completing a four-week training session and passing a final assessment, Fitzpatrick began work as a quality assurance analyst, a role where he tests mobile apps to make sure they function properly, while training and working with an assigned mentor.

“When I first decided to apply, I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Fitzpatrick said. “I thought it was going to be a dull and repetitive, push-the-button kind of job. But it’s not. We really dig into these apps and try different things to see what makes them break. It’s almost sort of a creative destruction process. If I can find a way to break the app, that’s a good week for me.”

This apprenticeship model at auticon offered Fitzpatrick a new career opportunity with structure, mentorship, and educational resources. Studies show that for people living with disabilities, structure, mentorship, and other small accommodations can make a big difference (PDF) in the workplace but that many employers don’t hire people with disabilities because of accommodation concerns.

But auticon consistently made an effort to accommodate Fitzpatrick and create a productive working environment. When a noise at the office stressed him out, his job coach worked to get him noise canceling headphones. When he forgot to attend meetings, his job coach showed him how he could set multiple alarms to stay on time.

Registered apprenticeships can take many forms, but all focus on combining a supportive learning and working environment to provide apprentices with the skills necessary to facilitate a long-term career.

In 2019, about 250,000 apprentices were registered in programs in the US, compared with 1.09 million in Germany (PDF). For auticon, a German-based employer, figuring out how to launch apprenticeships in the US was a challenge because the US has a less established system. The German apprenticeship system has robust supports, with structured collaboration between employers, local government, and local industry organizations. But for auticon and other US employers, Urban Institute research shows third-party intermediaries can offer similar structure, support, and other logistical assistance.

How German apprenticeships provide organizational structure and support

Apprenticeships are more commonplace in Germany than in the US, with more than half of German graduates from general education entering the workforce through apprenticeship programs. To work as an apprentice, German students apply to a position they’re interested in, and if selected, they enter into a training contract. The company coordinates the subsequent training period for the new apprentice in collaboration with a local vocational school and a local chamber of commerce or industry organization.

Through their apprenticeship, students split time working, learning work-related skills in the classroom, and continuing their general studies. Every apprentice is assigned a mentor who has been trained for that role and can ensure the apprentice learns and grows.

“One of the biggest benefits of German-style apprenticeships is that so many actors, including employers, are invested in its success,” said Diana Elliott of Urban’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population. “Such apprenticeships ensure that apprentices are learning curriculum and training that the employers need, and the employers are invested in it being high quality training.”

Unlike the German model, US apprenticeships tend to prioritize flexibility, with each company designing how its apprenticeship offers classroom learning, on-the-job training, and credentials. But the flexibility of the US model means every apprenticeship is different, which makes navigating the system complex for aspiring apprentices and employers interested in creating programs.

To bridge this complexity gap, intermediaries can offer expertise to potential apprentices, employers, or both. Intermediaries in the US can play a similar role to the German chambers of commerce and industry organizations by providing behind-the-scenes logistical support, such as advising employers, training mentors, and certifying apprenticeships.

What intermediaries can offer to US-based employers interested in apprenticeship

In the US, apprenticeship intermediaries can take many forms, including as government agencies, high schools, or small businesses. Each intermediary varies in the support they offer, but all have specialized knowledge to help students and employers interested in apprenticeships navigate the US system.

In Ohio, for example, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD), a state agency, acts as an intermediary to connect people with disabilities to apprenticeships in state government. OOD also offers apprentices support in their roles, such as providing a sign language interpreter for a deaf apprentice, and pays each apprentice’s wages.

With such a complex US ecosystem, intermediaries can fill structural gaps and ensure programs fulfill their potential. In particular, intermediaries can promote US apprenticeships through the following:

  • facilitating connections between the government and industry actors involved in setting up an apprenticeship
  • promoting the value of apprenticeships to prospective employers who may not see the benefits of the system
  • ensuring the quality of programs by training apprentice mentors and implementing the same standards German apprentices are expected to meet

Without the existing apprenticeship infrastructure that’s available in Germany, intermediaries can offer critical structure and support to US-based apprenticeships. For people like Fitzpatrick, who has thrived at auticon because of the support and mentorship he receives there, that additional help can make a big difference.

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Tags Workforce development Apprenticeships
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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