The Urgent Need for Racially Inclusive Tech Apprenticeship in the COVID Economic Recovery

Kirsten Lundgren
Feb 26 · 5 min read
Oakland-based tech apprentices discuss their pathways into tech at a Kapor Center event

The United States has, for decades, created economic insecurity and inequality among people of color. In addition to deep historical disparities in education access and opportunity, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) have been structurally excluded from high-wage jobs and concentrated in low-wage roles most vulnerable to automation. Meanwhile, as our global and national economy has rapidly transformed due to technological advancement, our technology workforce remains homogenous with women and BIPOC workers highly underrepresented.

COVID-19 has amplified these disparities. By late summer 2020, the US unemployment rate for Black workers was 13% (up from 5.8%), 10.5% for Latinx populations (up from 4.4%), nearly double the rate of their white counterparts, with job losses highly concentrated among women of color. While unemployed, BIPOC groups are less likely to receive insurance benefits despite having fewer assets to fall back on. They are also more likely to incur risk relying on front line and gig work as a primary source of income. Such trends must not persist.

Developing a diverse and inclusive technology workforce is critical for equitable economic growth and mobility for communities of color, as well as pandemic recovery. In the next decade, it’s estimated that 375 million global workers will need to gain new skills and change occupations due to advances in automation that COVID is expediting. Problematic for the mobility of BIPOC workers, the US private sector has decreased investment in skill building, while the public sector has underinvested in employment training over recent decades. The need has never been greater for public-private investment and new partnership models to fast-track diverse groups into 21st century careers.

Thankfully, periods of recession and economic crisis present opportunities to trade outdated practices for new innovation. One such innovation, apprenticeship, offers a public-private model for more efficiently connecting BIPOC to high-pay, high-growth careers in tech. These multi-year opportunities combine (1) structured coursework and (2) paid, on-the-job learning with formal mentorship and clear milestones tied to industry recognized certification, wage progression, and job conversion. Their benefits are many. When implemented correctly, apprenticeships:

  • Make obsolete the dilemma between choosing paid work and formal education via debt-free learning
  • Equip workers with a certification/degree that demonstrates their qualifications in the labor market and prevents future discrimination
  • Increase workers wages (apprenticeships typically pay at least 60% of their target job wage)
  • Help companies meet fast-growing demand for skilled workers (often with company-specific knowledge) at a lower cost
  • Help companies retain and advance talent and reduce costs associated with turnover
  • Support businesses in diversifying their workforce, which has been shown to be profitable
  • Grow the US economy by spurring innovation, competition, and addressing inequality

While other countries have long leveraged apprenticeship in economic recovery, such models have yet to scale in the US. The National Apprenticeship Act, now awaiting bipartisan Senate approval, would offer $3.5 billion over five years to create one million new apprenticeships and $10.6 billion in benefits. The legislation would empower intermediaries targeting underrepresented groups and expand apprenticeships to new, in-demand sectors and occupations.

In a new wave of tech apprenticeship programming, racial disparities brought to the forefront by COVID must be intentionally addressed. Black and Latinx participation in apprenticeships roughly mirrors their participation in the labor force, yet these BIPOC apprentices are overrepresented in low-wage building and construction trades. Among higher-paid STEM apprentices between 2000 and 2016, 70% were White, 13% Black, and 8% Latinx.

Similarly, today’s tech companies implement apprenticeships that often reinforce the racial and economic homogeneity that pervades the broader workforce. This while public community colleges educating large BIPOC populations offer vocational curriculum unaligned with tech economy needs and notably few tech apprenticeship programs. Such trends highlight the immense potential for ecosystem players to align in diversifying the tech sector while boosting BIPOC wealth.

While the common wisdom championed by public system stakeholders emphasizes designing to the needs of employers, this is a limiting approach to racial equity. Too often employers have demonstrated racial equity is not a priority, as is particularly evident in tech. Through our investment partners at Kapor Capital, we are proud to invest venture capital in and partner with companies like Twilio and Bitwise, who flip the equation by putting racially diverse talent at the center of their tech apprenticeship design and diversity strategy.

Theirs and other models we have researched, advised, and collaborated with (Airbnb, Techtonica, LinkedIn, Square, GitHub, etc.) demonstrate promising features of innovative and inclusive tech apprenticeships, including:

  • Expanded Definitions of Inclusion: Apprenticeship programs need intentional focus on serving marginalized racial and economic groups to effectively close gaps. Too often diversity and inclusion in tech apprenticeship is defined along lines of gender or “non-traditional” talent that favor elite, pedigreed individuals (e.g. liberal arts graduates from top-tier universities who are career transitioning into tech via costly bootcamps).
  • Inclusive Talent Recruitment: Meeting BIPOC groups where they are, in their communities, is critical to recruiting diverse talent. This means developing diligent partnerships with local training, education, and intermediary partners who are embedded community members providing trusted, culturally appropriate, and industry-aligned preparation and support.
  • Inclusive Talent Assessment: Assessing talent for tech apprenticeship programs must be conducted in a more equitable way that does not disadvantage BIPOC. We have encountered assessments that mirror standardized exams and/or test for advanced skills not required in the apprenticeship instead of assessing aptitude for growth and mastery.
  • Providing Living-Wage Compensation: Providing living-wage compensation and benefits in apprenticeship prevents apprentices from taking out loans or sinking further in debt as they learn. This compensation must also be equitable. Black apprentices, for example, have been shown to earn less than the minimum wage upon apprenticeship program completion.
  • Addressing Talent Retention: Creating a diverse and inclusive company culture is critical to retention of BIPOC apprentices and graduates. This can entail BIPOC representation at leadership levels, development of active employee resource groups, integrated mentoring, sponsorship, and professional development opportunities (such as inclusion in stretch assignments), plus attention to inclusivity in product design.

The convergence of numerous economic, technology, and racial justice challenges present an urgent opportunity to invest in tech apprenticeship as a strategy for building a more equitable tech sector and US economy. In response to George Floyd’s murder, tech companies demonstrated they are able to quickly put dollars to work toward racial equity when they desire. Similar private sector investment, if redirected towards apprenticeship, met with deep federal and state investments (e.g. the National Apprenticeships Act), and close collaboration with local communities and intermediaries, means no single entity must bear the full costs of starting and maintaining such programs on their own.

New research and insights on racially inclusive practices in modern US tech apprenticeship are also needed to support innovation and scaled solutions in this space. Throughout 2021, the Kapor Center will continue to explore related themes and case studies though partnerships, policy, and programming. To stay informed, sign up for our newsletter here.

Learn more about The Leaky Tech Pipeline, our website tool that provides a framework to understand racial disparities in the tech ecosystem & shares comprehensive solutions.

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