The blog of the Urban Institute
February 1, 2021

Three Ways to Improve Inclusion and Equity in Tech through Apprenticeship

In the early 2010s, Apple, Google, and Microsoft began releasing diversity reports that described their company’s employee composition by race, ethnicity, and gender. The data revealed these tech giants hired a disproportionate number of white and Asian men and few Native American, Latinx, and Black people.

Apprenticeship programs mirror the lack of diversity in tech. Using federal data on apprentices, we calculated that only about one in four apprentices in tech programs is a woman, and there are even fewer Latinx and Black women tech apprentices. But these programs offer an opportunity to expand diversity in the tech space because they can help learners avoid student debt and provide immediate paid employment with industry-relevant, on-the-job training—key barriers to entry for many other fields.

White, male employees still dominate the tech workforce; only 25.9 percent of computer support specialists are women and only 27.8 percent are Latinx or Black. This is largely because of hiring teams’ biases—both conscious and subconscious. Evidence suggests white candidates may receive significantly more callbacks (PDF) based partly on the signaling provided solely by their name. Young Native American, Latinx, and Black people also face systemic barriers to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. They obtain fewer STEM degrees than their white counterparts because structural inequalities in wealth, access to affordable financing, and other costs to education are significantly higher for Black students than for white students.

Apprenticeships in tech provide paid employment, training, mentorship, and supports. And they include progressive wages; as apprentices develop their skills, their pay increases. Apprenticeships provide income as a person learns job-relevant skills and are a college-free pathway to building the skills needed in an in-demand field without taking on college debt and its massive effect on wealth and financial security. This is especially important for Native American, Latinx, and Black communities.

Recently, the Urban Institute convened a panel of apprenticeship experts who identified three themes for improving diversity and inclusion in tech jobs through apprenticeship expansion. The panel included perspectives of experts from education, industry, community-based organizations, and apprentices themselves.

Ensure apprentices see themselves represented in peers, teachers, and mentors

Sierra Butcher, an apprentice and cyber security analyst with Fiserv, emphasized the importance of having colleagues with whom she shared identity and similar life experiences. Research on student achievement (PDF) suggests Latinx and Black students benefit from teachers who share their race and culture. Butcher’s own lived experience in a tech apprenticeship program reflect the importance of having Black and Latinx mentors supporting Black and Latinx apprentices. It was important for Sierra to see people in her apprenticeship program who looked like her and shared similar experiences.

Offer nontraditional pathways to quality jobs

Although employment demand in this field is growing, estimates indicate there are roughly 500,000 tech job openings in the US per year, but fewer than 70,000 students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in computer science (PDF) each year. And those graduates don’t always possess the skills necessary to thrive in the evolving tech industry. Michael Ward Jr., president and CEO of Austin Urban Technology Movement, noted, “There is a disconnect between our education systems and… what’s needed from an employer perspective.”

Apprenticeships bridge that distance by enabling companies to develop tailored worker development processes that promote company culture and increase diversity. Companies can collaborate with colleges and universities in the design and delivery of classroom learning, or they can partner with other organizations on this element of apprenticeships. Either way, it empowers the company to have a more active role in the training and preparation of its employees, and it offers young Native American, Latinx, and Black people, who have been historically excluded by the traditional university-driven pathway, alternative avenues to opportunity.  

Make the business case for investing in apprenticeship

Companies that build sustainable apprenticeship programs see economic benefits. They enjoy a more engaged workforce, as existing employees share their expertise and mentor apprentices. They provide employers with a pipeline of talent that can be customized to their occupational needs. Diverse workforces also drive product and process innovations, as new perspectives provide new solutions. Girish Seshagiri, who serves on the board of directors of ISHPI, shared the following personal experience with the panel: “The most diverse team outperformed those that were [less diverse]. We need to recognize the business value of diversity.” Tech apprenticeships make sense for businesses and for the communities they serve.

With the new administration’s commitment to advancing racial equity, employers, educational institutions, and community-based organizations must reflect on how they can provide opportunities to motivated Native American, Latinx, and Black people. Heather Terenzio, founder and CEO of Techtonic, succinctly described the consequences of inclusion: “If you’re building products with just white men, then you will make products for white men. We need to get input in all stages of a product from diverse groups. More and more companies are recognizing the importance throughout the development process of having a diverse workforce.”

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.