Episode 15: How an Inclusive Apprenticeship Led to Marketable Skills in IT: A Neurodiverse Apprentice Shares His Success Story

Earl DubeEarl Dube, a graduate of the Bridge to Opportunity IT program who identifies as neurodivergent, shares his journey into an IT career through apprenticeship. He provides advice to other job candidates with disabilities, as well as to employers of neurodiverse apprentices about how they can create inclusive workplaces to broaden their access to a large talent pool of tech professionals.


Earl Dube: [00:00:00.30] Don’t lie about yourself or embellish the truth just to make people think better of you despite your disabilities. I spent half my life lying about myself to avoid being judged because of my neurodiversity, and sometimes I wish I trusted people more to treat me equally.

Intro: [00:00:21.96] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace Leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:47.31] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. PIA is funded by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. In November of 2020, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high-growth, high-demand jobs. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and ACE the HR exam. Today I’m joined by Earle Dube. He’s an information technology intern at Macro Connect and recent graduate of Bridge to Opportunity, which works to raise opportunities and transform the lives of people with disabilities through employment. Earl is a 2016 graduate of Lawrence Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in Game Art and is a certified Cisco information technician. Earl, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Earl Dube: [00:01:57.48] Thank you. Happy to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:59.61] Let’s just jump right in and talk about your background and what led you to seek an apprenticeship specifically in information technology.

Earl Dube: [00:02:07.26] So my background is specifically in the field of fine arts. I majored in game art at Lawrence Technological University, and before that I went to a charter school specifically for the Arts called Arts Academy in the Woods. The specialized schooling I received from A.W. and Lawrence Tech helped me excel because I had mentors who understood people with mental disabilities. I can remember two people in particular who stood out to me and helped me learn, Shawn Pardue, who is my biggest inspiration in learning, and Marshall Ashton, who had a brother with Asperger’s syndrome, same as me. They knew how to teach me and how to approach me, and I owe a lot to them. After graduation, I participated in a number of projects and a number of jobs. One of them was with the Detroit Film Studio. My dream in life has always been to get my name in the credits of a movie, and I accomplished that working for the Detroit Film Studio. After fulfilling my dream, I was taken aback at what to do next. It was surreal feeling the accomplishment of my life goals being completed so early. I turned to one of my uncles who suggested I take up a new field of study known as information technology. And I didn’t really know how to approach it at first, but, so I started by enrolling myself in the Google IT certificate course. After passing, and acquiring the degrees from Google, I used those credentials to gain access to a Cisco degree through Michigan Bridge to Opportunity. I was told many times that there’s a job in IT for everyone, even an artist. So, I wasn’t discouraged by my background and kept pushing through with my family cheering me on.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:01.18] What a great story, Earl, and I, and I love that you fulfilled your lifelong dream so young. I think that’s awesome. But it also is like, what the heck am I supposed to do now?

Earl Dube: [00:04:11.71] Yeah, I was. I was like, it was surreal for me. I was like, should I keep pushing or should I choose a new road? And I chose a new road.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:22.92] How did you connect with Three Talents and what role did they play in helping you secure an apprenticeship?

Earl Dube: [00:04:29.01] I connected with them to Michigan Rehabilitation Services. There were several steps in between lessons that helped me prepare for a job and interview. I remember Silvia Fedor from the Michigan Bridge to Opportunity. She took the time out of her day to revise and perfect every student’s resumé with coaching for how to write effectively. She even brought in, like guests who helped us prepare for mock interviews by having us each like in a, in a circle, in a roundabout, ask mock interview questions. And we did rehearsals and stuff for how to answer those questions effectively. She also brought in special guests from the real industry to teach us how to remain humble and how you never stop learning in the field of information technology. I also have to thank people like Richard Lamb and Gary Hunt. I admittedly had some rough times throughout taking the classes, but if it wasn’t for their patience and understanding, I would not be where I am today. Specifically, I remember that I was mentally stuck with one part of the lessons. IPv4, IPv4 subnet, it didn’t come easy to me at first. It was very challenging for me to learn. So that was when I took the time and effort to quite literally lock myself in my room for two days and with my motivation, determination, my aptitude, I figured it out and was able to apply myself to be able to solve that problem on my own. I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to know why I wasn’t able to figure it out the first time. I was complimented by Gary Hunt afterwards. He said that I was the kind of guy that if I couldn’t figure something out, it bothered me. And, and I was the kind of guy that when something bothered me, I wouldn’t quit until it didn’t bother me anymore. Kind of a bit of a counterintuitive quality, but you know, I’ll just say that like that willpower to never quit really helped me with the apprenticeship.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:01.14] How do you describe Three Talents’ approach to creating an inclusive culture?

Earl Dube: [00:07:06.59] Three Talents was intent on treating everyone with respect despite their disabilities. The classes were spread apart in a way so that, regardless of the size of the class, there was always someone to help you if you fell behind. Not only that, but a lot of, a lot of people in the class, like myself, even tutored some people who did fall behind. You were kind of like helping each other out if one of us wasn’t quite getting it. And like I said, we had guest speakers from around the world who had disabilities like us. One of them was from South Africa, who was, for lack of a better term, she was the pinnacle of success in the job that would normally be judgmental towards others. Forgive me, I’m blanking out on her name, but she was a fantastic guide and taught me a lot about how to present myself in the best way to future employers. But most of all, I still have to commend those like Silvia, who created special lessons that we learned every week for on-the-job training.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:15.08] I love that. And how amazing that, that you are helping lift up other students in the class, number one, to ensure everyone’s collective success. But how many great people that you’re able to connect with that you could learn from and really see and understand how they were navigating the world of work.

Earl Dube: [00:08:38.75] Thank you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:40.33] What advice would you have or would like to share with others who are neurodiverse who are seeking an apprenticeship?

Earl Dube: [00:08:48.40] I really have two pieces of advice for them. The first piece is going to be an obvious piece of advice, the second piece of advice you might have to take with a grain of salt, but my first piece of advice: Don’t be idle. Every day you come home from your regular job, you should make an effort to learn a new skill that can help you land a better job. I remember coming home every day from my job at the movie theater to take an online class in coding in Python. Even before I started pursuing a job in IT, I remember coming home every day from my job at the grocery store to work on a music video that I would submit to a contest at a convention. You should really know to always be expanding your surroundings of what you can learn that can help you further your career opportunities like, and it’s funny because even though I taught myself Python and how to code even before the IT classes began, it still didn’t prepare me for the IT classes because I was still learning all new stuff. But it was all this stuff I was learning in my free time that I had the drive to learn. I really didn’t offer myself a moment to sit still, believe it or not. I even lost interest in video games for a short while, all in an effort to push myself towards a goal of finding a better job with better pay, opportunity and people.

Earl Dube: [00:10:22.75] I would say the mindset that you can’t do something is false, when you take the time to learn it and get good at it. Now the second piece of advice, like I said, you’ll take with a grain of salt. But I want to tell this to pretty much everyone, especially those who don’t have too much, well, faith in themselves, or maybe have doubts or very little motivation. I would like to give some unique advice to them. Have an ego. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, because if you don’t have an ego, something to drive you to always get better and better, you’ll lose motivation and ultimately determination. I guess you could say without an ego you would not have the willpower to try new things or seek new opportunities to learn. I know it was my ego that allowed me to find the spirit to never quit, even when times got tough or I lost a job. When there are people out there in the world like me, you lose a lot of opportunities simply because you have a mental disability and employers second guess hiring you. So yeah, honestly, having an ego can help you not only stay focused but keep moving despite any hardships you will face along the way.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:44.77] I’m still stuck on the fact that you taught yourself Python. Like I heard that, and I’m like, Holy cow. So impressive.

Earl Dube: [00:11:51.46] Yeah.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:53.02] I also wanted to ask you, what advice would you give them to support their success?

Earl Dube: [00:12:00.56] The answer I have to this question once again, I’m going, I’m going to sound like, I’m going to sound a little harsh. But, but it’s for the best when I say it like this. For anyone suffering from a neurodiverse disease like me, you should take it upon yourself that you have a duty, a responsibility to your peers and others like you to show the world that there should be no stigma to hiring someone who has autism. The moment you show weakness and give up on something, especially a job or an employer giving you a chance, it can fuel stereotype from employers to not hire those with mental disabilities or disregard inclusivity apprenticeships at their company. I can even remember, for example, Three Talents at Michigan Bridge to Opportunity told me they lost a client because one of their students didn’t make a good impression at the job that was offered to them after they passed their Cisco certification degree. And yeah, that’s, that’s like, that’s a prime example that I just want to tell everyone, like don’t contribute to that stigma because that just keeps on setting people like you and me behind and in, in creating a better world for people who are neurodiverse who can help contribute to the workplace. Personally, I would tell anyone like me to not judge others like they judge you. I’ve lived my entire life being judged because of my mental incapacities. The last thing I would do is judge my employer when they give me a career opportunity. Remember, and this is a, this is a huge, like, slogan I came up with. But remember to wear your flaws as a badge that you can conquer them. Weakness is defined as your failures ruling over you. Strength is defined as you ruling over your failures. And lastly, I would tell people with neurodiversity to try to trust people more. Don’t lie about yourself or embellish the truth just to make people think better of you despite your disabilities. I spent half my life lying about myself to avoid being judged because of my neurodiversity. And sometimes I wish I trusted people more to treat me equally.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:51.92] So inspiring. I love your perspective and your point of view. I think it’s really important in terms of using obstacles not to define us, but to empower us and not just, this isn’t just about helping ourselves. This is about lifting others up. So, appreciate you sharing all these nuggets of wisdom and your slogan, which I thought was amazing.

Earl Dube: [00:15:18.71] Thank you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:19.58] Tell me how you found Bridge to Opportunity and the kind of work, the things that you did working with them that put you on the path to this internship.

Earl Dube: [00:15:30.37] So going back to what I said before, after I acquired that degree in IT through the Google Certificates program, I used those credentials to find Bridge to Opportunity through Michigan Rehabilitation Services. The Cisco CCNA was a hard course, certainly not something I would recommend to those who aren’t willing to make sacrifices to get through it. And I just want to share a personal experience, because, when I went through these classes with Bridge to Opportunity, we started with a class of 25 and ended with a class of 11. 14 people seemingly gave up on the classes within the first two weeks. And I felt that was, well, really unfortunate. So really, I have to tell the truth that going back to what I said before, most of these people who gave up didn’t have the motivation or the determination. And for classes like these, that help you further yourself, get a better job with better opportunities in the information technology field, where, where it’s such a growing field. I mean, it’s like technology is never going to stop breaking. So, the information technology field will probably never stop either.

Earl Dube: [00:17:00.31] When I finished my Cisco training with Bridge to Opportunity, I was handed off to work with Deanna and Jean Bommarito, who helped me prepare for an interview and gave me some unique advice on how to score a job. And when I got the interview with Macro Connect, it was Jean specifically who gave me some unique advice of his own. He told me that, even though I’ve rehearsed and prepared myself for any question that I was going to be asked in the interview, he said, Earl, you’re going to have to shoot from the hip on some of these questions if I want to impress the interviewer for the job. There was no scripting every answer perfectly for the job interview with Macro Connect. I specifically remember using my own judgment during the interview process to impress the people at Macro Connect and I had to come up with a few answers without remembering my training I did for it off screen. But once I got through the process, it was all worth it to have a job in the information technology field.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:09.94] Well, I can say you are doing great, unscripted. Those who are listening are going to hear a flawless interview. But there’s always technical challenges and things that are happening behind the scenes. So, I’m not surprised that you were flexible and fluid in your interview, no matter what questions were, were thrown at you. That’s such a, it’s not an easy thing. So, hats off.

Earl Dube: [00:18:36.34] Thank you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:37.63] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrill and you’re listening to the Work podcast today. Today we are talking with Earl Dube. He’s an information technology intern at Macro Connect and a recent graduate of Bridge to Opportunity. This podcast is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. The Workology Podcast, which is what you’re listening to right now, is sponsored by Upskill HR and ACE the HR exam.

Break [00:19:04.87] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high-growth, high-demand jobs.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:41.54] So we also have a prep call for those who are maybe like how, how did we connect with Earl and how did we get prepared for the podcast? So, we have a prep call. And when Earl and I were talking to kind of set the stage here on the prep call, he is full of quotes. So, I want to read you one that he said to me, which I really love. So, he said, “the greatest disability that someone can have is having no confidence in themselves.” So, he told me this. And so, I wanted to ask, based on your quote here, as a person who identifies as being neurodiverse, what would you describe as the greatest disability? And can you explain how you have overcome this?

Earl Dube: [00:20:23.99] I’m just going to say right off the bat, I would tell everyone to avoid social media because it does help. It does help with confidence in yourself in the long run. But the few times I do go on it, I always see the same thing from people who suffer from the same disabilities as me. Minorities who are always saying they can’t do it, how the world is against them and how they are shrouded in a defeatist attitude about themselves or others. Quite honestly, I’m sick of it. I want everyone to listen. Don’t ever think you can’t do something. We have athletes these days with no legs winning and competing in the Olympics. We have blind people who play the piano better than anyone else and can type at over 120 words per minute. We have people with the same mental disabilities winning the wars and changing the world with their own inventions. Biggest example of that is Elon Musk with Tesla and SpaceX, because he has, he has Asperger’s as he’s gone on record saying. Nothing should stop you because, at the end of the day, I’ll just say it again, the greatest ability someone can have is no confidence in themselves.

Earl Dube: [00:21:48.31] Remember that. Don’t let a stereotype of a mental disability cloud your judgment and let, and let you submit to like that, once again, that defeatist attitude like that, that crying that, that I see so many times. Like maybe you see someone staring at you because you’re in a room alone, or maybe you see, constantly feel like people are judging you. This is why I said before, having an ego can be, can be a helpful thing too. Because, you know, it can help you ignore those judging you. But I would say to you, forget the negative of a psychology article defining you or the thought of a medication controlling you. When you get right down to it, you have a unique mind and you have to put yourself in a position where you’re not defined by a research study, nor a prescription and a pill. Don’t create excuses that the medication or the psychology says you can’t do it because they only define statistics. And confidence isn’t built on statistics.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:01.54] True story. So, let’s switch gears a little bit and switch over to the employer side of the house. What advice would you give to employers on how they can create inclusive apprenticeships and inclusive workplaces more broadly?

Earl Dube: [00:23:17.33] So I would say, just right off the bat, employers have to learn to give others like me a chance. And everyone needs a job that grants them happiness or a sense of fulfillment. A mental or physical disability should not be a wall that stops that. Because if employers do not do apprenticeships like these, then it would only worsen the situation. If you exclude a group of people who are disabled from being hired, you force that group of people into isolation where they could end up on the streets or being abused in other jobs that, that do not respect them. That can cause a separation where exclusivity is put above opportunity. I would say like, to go even further, even this country’s homeless problem can be attributed to the fact that no one wants to give the mentally disabled the chance to rebuild their lives. I would advise employers to not create a world where jobs only cater based on what you can’t do and focus on jobs catering to what they can do for you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:44.93] How has this apprenticeship changed your life and what’s your hope for the future for you and for others?

Earl Dube: [00:24:52.22] Well, I’m just going to say straight out, I have never been more grateful than getting a job with Macro Connect or just the IT field in general. And being a part of the information technology industry is, really, I’m just going to say it right now. Even if you take the Cisco classes and the CCNA and the routing and switching exam, like you still won’t be prepared for day one in the job in the field, because you’ll be learning things that’s hands on with people who are better than you, with people who want to support you, with people who want to work with you. And like I can remember, I can remember my first week in the, in the IT field. I was putting some laptops in a cart and a teacher called out to me and said, Hey, hey, hey, computer guy. I turned my head. It was, it was funny how I answered to that. And I kind of liked being referred to that. But this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that gave me the chance to have a sustainable job with financial benefits that can lead me towards a career where I shouldn’t have to worry about rationing my spending or worrying about the future. The field I’m in right now is all about the future because there will never come a day where, where technology stops breaking or technology stops improving, for that matter, either. The field of IT is constantly growing in a world that is continually digitizing its documents, its workplaces. There’s even been a few times where some, some jobs in IT are done entirely remotely. On the other side, my hope for the future is that more employers hear my story and my voice so that they see that a mental or cognitive impairment should not be a reason why someone should not be given an opportunity to have a fulfilling job that makes them happy, to look at their credentials or their accomplishments before they read in between the lines of what a new study finds.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:14.08] Well, that’s what I hope to, from all of this, Earl. And that’s why we have great employees who are doing awesome things and going through programs and apprenticeships here on the podcast so that we can change the workplace together. So, I really appreciate you taking time to, to chat with us. I am going to have a whole host of resources on the transcript of this podcast over on Workology. We’ll have a way to connect with Earl. You can learn more about Bridge to Opportunity as well, some other podcast episodes. I would encourage you, as well as other resources, I would encourage you, the listener, to check out, to learn more. So, thank you so much, Earl, for taking the opportunity to chat with us and share your story.

Earl Dube: [00:28:05.86] You’re welcome. And if I could do one quick shameless plug, I’ll say I have my own website that everyone on this podcast listening can check out, EarlDube93.com.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:19.18] We’ll also include that in the resources so easy click right over to EarlDube93.com. Thanks again, Earl. I really appreciate it.

Earl Dube: [00:28:27.49] You’re welcome. Happy to be, happy to be here and give such an inspiring speech to anyone who might be in my position or might want to try a field like I’m in right now.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:42.10] I love these interviews when we talk directly to students, apprenticeships and interns who are going through and have received specialist training in order to gain employment at organizations like Macro Connect. I love hearing directly from them because it really puts us in a place where we can fully understand the impact that we as employers truly have on employment for all people, but especially people with disabilities. This is such an interesting area of focus for HR professionals, especially those who have helped support mentorships and apprenticeships in their own careers. Being able to hear directly from someone who is participating in an internship or apprenticeship program is so important and so valuable. And I appreciate Earl for sharing his expertise and his story with us today. A special thank you to PIA, who is powering this podcast series and a special thank you to our podcast sponsors, Upskill HR and Ace the HR exam with Workology.

Closing: Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community and over 100 on demand courses for the Dynamic Leader. HR recert credits available. Visit Upskill HR for more. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology podcast episodes.