Episode 20: Emma MacLean and Marie Trudelle of Apprenti, a Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP)

Marie TrudelleEmma MacLeanEmma MacLean and Marie Trudelle of Apprenti, a Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP), share how the organization works directly with employers to help them develop their own inclusive RAP. In this episode, they discuss how Apprenti sources and trains apprentices for their employer partners and how to overcome barriers to creating accessible recruitment and training processes to support apprentices with disabilities.


Emma MacLean: [00:00:00.05] We estimate that about 20% of adults living in the U.S. have a disability. And if we’re looking at a national average disclosure rate of only 3 to 5%, that’s really troubling, that individuals do not feel comfortable bringing in disclosing that to work. But there are actionable things that organizations can do to change that.

Intro: [00:00:22.30] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrill, 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: [00:00:47.44] 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 U.S. 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. Before I introduce our guest, I want to hear from you. Text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005. Ask me questions, leave comments, and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. Today I’m joined by Emma MacLean, Accessible Apprenticeship Program Manager and Marie Trudelle, Accessibility Specialist and Inclusive Designer at Apprenti. Emma is an educator and disability advocate. Her path to accessible work has included being a paraprofessional at a children’s school for disabilities, being a steering committee member of the Cultural Access Collaborative, formerly Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium, and being a teaching artist with a theater group in Chicago called Able – Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations, where she works with actors with developmental and intellectual disabilities. She is currently the Accessible Apprenticeship Program Manager at Apprenti, where she works with apprenticeships, training providers, employers and community partners to ensure accessibility and inclusion. Marie is an Accessibility Specialist and Inclusive Designer. She started her career as an educator at the California School for the Blind and shifted her focus on the intersection of technology and disability empowerment in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Lebanon and Turkey. Marie’s experience teaching design thinking to educators and corporate leaders help her identify and creatively approach barriers to access. At Apprenti, she works alongside Emma to build, sustain and expand accessible apprenticeship programs. Emma and Marie, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Emma MacLean: [00:03:00.48] Thanks for having us.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:02.70] I really wish they could have listened to the pre-show because we covered lots of things before we actually started recording the podcast interview, but I’m really excited to talk about today’s topic, So, let’s jump in and discuss a little bit about your backgrounds. What led you to your current roles at Apprenti?

Emma MacLean: [00:03:21.07] Excellent. As you mentioned in your intro, I’ve worked in accessibility in a variety of environments, and as a disabled person myself, it is important to me that workplaces are accessible and welcoming. At Apprenti, I have the opportunity to work with individuals to implement accommodations, but I also get to work on a systems level on universal design and other accessibility best practices. I believe that both are important when we’re creating accessible programs.

Marie Trudelle: [00:03:48.49] And I also worked directly with individuals with disabilities prior to joining Apprenti, and I found that so many of my clients and students were incredibly bright. They possessed this ability and desire to learn and contribute in meaningful ways. Yet the inaccurate perceived limitation that others held, especially employers, guided, led them away towards work with upward mobility. And so, when I came to Apprenti, I was really excited to expand opportunities for individuals with underrepresented backgrounds to pursue a career that they’re actually interested in and to work with Emma to create these opportunities of inclusion and to identify and dismantle barriers to access.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:38.75] I love all that and I love hearing your stories because I think it’s important to understand the path that led you to what we’re going to be talking about today. My first question, which will be for Emma, is how are accessibility best practices good for employers? And I’m thinking about not just individuals who have a disability or are considered disabled.

Emma MacLean: [00:05:03.17] Absolutely. When it comes to accessibility, I really think a rising tide lifts all boats. Many people might benefit from accessible best practices even if they don’t have a disability, or maybe don’t identify in their workplace as having a disability. For example, turning on automated captions during virtual meetings. This could be thought of as an accommodation for an individual who’s deaf or hard of hearing, but if turning on captions is a workplace norm, then it might be beneficial for people who are in a noisy environment and want to listen to what’s happening in the meeting. Right. When we started turning on the captions in meetings at Apprenti, a few people let me know, “Wow, I didn’t actually realize how helpful the captions would be for me.” So, when we think about accessibility, we really don’t want to limit to just what are accommodations for a given individual. Many people can actually benefit.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:55.26] I love that example because honestly I always have closed captions on my Netflix on. It just makes the experience so much better. And the same is true for meetings. I also think about automatic doors at stores and restaurants and shops. Those were not originally intended for individuals who could open their own doors. So, these are all things that everybody can benefit from.

Emma MacLean: [00:06:20.01] Yes, there are countless examples. Flexible working hours are another thing that come to mind. Or normalizing taking breaks in your workday. All these things can be beneficial for many people, not just thought of as accommodations for a disability.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:33.69] Let’s talk about the state of employment right now. We talked about some examples of maybe accommodations or ways to, that others can benefit from an accommodation or a technology or a tool that’s intended for people with disabilities. Let’s talk about the state of employment. What’s it like out there?

Marie Trudelle: [00:06:51.72] Yeah, so individuals with disabilities actually saw an increase in employment rates in 2021, and some of that is due to COVID and the opportunity to have more flexible work environments and schedules, be able to work from home. However, while there is this increase in employment, their rate of employment continues to lag significantly behind those of their non-disabled counterparts. And what’s interesting is across gender, race, ethnicity and age, disabled people are less likely to be employed and work fewer hours and earn significantly lower income than individuals without disabilities. And so overall employment opportunities are limited. And especially when we look at employment opportunities with upward mobility, where individuals are actually acquiring skill sets. And right now, we are facing a tech talent gap and all employers are looking at new ways to find talent. And one opportunity is to look towards the individuals with disabilities. There’s an opportunity to expand this, to expand talent pools and use this untapped resource of, of candidates by expanding their educational and career opportunities. So right now, the national disclosure rate is between 3 to 5%. And at Apprenti, the disclosure rate for our apprentices is at 17%. So, 17% have disclosed to have a disability. And while, you know, Emma and I look at this significantly higher statistics and seek to understand why and I think one thing that we keep coming back to is that at Apprenti we communicate that disability inclusion is a, is a big value to our organization. And so, we communicate that to apprentices and to employers throughout their journey and we create multiple opportunities for disclosure. And we also seek to implement accessibility standards and inclusive design principles for everyone. So, elevating that level of access, not just for individuals that just say that they have a disability, but recognize that individuals may identify as having a disability now or they may be experiencing a temporary or situational disability but can benefit from implementing accessibility standards.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:33.37] This is an important conversation. I want to go back to the beginning of what you mentioned, which is, number one, employment has improved the numbers for persons with disabilities, but it is not keeping up with where we need to be. And there’s also an opportunity for us, as employers and HR leaders, to bring in and fill roles, particularly in the area of tech talent, with these individuals who also are skilled in tech and have a disability. The thing I think that is interesting is that many, not employers, but I think just the norm in our society is that there is a lack of encouragement to disclose if somebody does have a disability and that’s that disclosure rate that you’re talking about. So, we can’t even accurately measure the number of people who are in an organization who do have a disability because they don’t feel comfortable letting HR or their boss or their employer even know. So, this is where we need to encourage. And it’s interesting that Apprenti, not surprising, but interesting that an organization that is all about inclusion would have a higher disclosure rate than average.

Emma MacLean: [00:10:55.33] Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of people are worried and not without reason about disability discrimination in the workplace. That is a really real fear. So, we estimate that about 20% of adults living in the U.S. have a disability. And if we’re looking at a national average disclosure rate of only 3 to 5%, that’s really troubling, that individuals do not feel comfortable bringing in disclosing that to work. But there are actionable things that organizations can do to change that.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:26.83] Well, I want to cover some of those things in a minute, but let’s switch gears and talk about Apprenti and how you work with employers throughout the life cycle of apprenticeship. And we’re going to touch on some points like accessibility audits and what accommodations look like. So, walk us through that.

Emma MacLean: [00:11:45.75] Absolutely.

Emma MacLean: [00:11:46.71] So, Apprenti partners with employers every step of the way from their first interview of a candidate all the way to the final day of the apprenticeship. When talking about interviews, we provide human-centered interview training and can help coordinate accommodations that might be necessary for those interviews. So, helping to make sure that all candidates are getting an equal opportunity when meeting with employers. Once employers select their apprentices, those apprentices then move into technical training. So that’s classroom-based learning that will vary in length depending on the occupation that the apprentice is studying. And the Access Team works with training providers and apprentices to make sure that they have everything they need to be successful during that time. The employer is taking a little bit more of a backseat during that time. They might be touching base with the apprentice intermittently, and so Apprenti is sharing resources with the employers for creating work plans, which will be implemented when the apprentice moves into on-the-job training. So, we utilize universal design for learning principles. We advocate for teaching through multiple modalities. We can walk individuals through what accommodations might look like when the individual transfers into their on-the-job training. And then once the apprentice does move into that on-the-job training with the employer, the Access Team remains available to do consultations. More often than not, the Access Team meets directly with the apprentice and empowers the apprentice to make the accommodation request. So, we’re not advocating on anyone’s behalf, but we’re helping support with the tools necessary for the employer and the apprentice to enter that interactive process, make sure accommodations are in place so that everyone can be successful.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:35.21] Fantastic. I think this is so helpful for HR leaders, workplace leaders, employers to understand, because this is definitely something they should consider, not just because they have a gap in their tech talent, but because they want to create a more inclusive work environment.

Break: [00:13:53.01] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrill and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we’re talking about inclusive apprenticeships with Emma MacLean and Marie Trudelle from Apprenti. This podcast is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. Before we get back to the podcast, I want to hear from you. Text Podcast to (512) 548-3005 to ask me questions, leave comments and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you.

Break: [00:14:25.68] 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: [00:15:02.52] I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about accommodations. We talked a little bit about flexible work schedules and closed captioning, but maybe for HR leaders and those especially in tech, can you talk about what some of these accommodations for your apprentices might look like?

Marie Trudelle: [00:15:20.31] Absolutely. So, we strive to create an accommodation process that’s highly visible and easy to maneuver. So, when we connect with apprentices, we focus on identifying barriers to access rather than highlighting that disability diagnosis. And we work collaboratively with each apprentice to outline potential accommodations that address their unique needs as well as their work environment. And so, we do not have a list of disabilities on one side and then a list of accommodations on the other side and say: for this disability, here’s a specific accommodation that we believe will work best. We take a very different approach and say, “every single individual is different and every individual with a disability is different.”. Therefore, accommodations need to have an element of flexibility and we need to co-design what that accommodation will look like with the apprentice because they know themselves best and they know their work environment better than we do. But Emma and I can ask guiding questions to better understand where these pain points actually exist. And so, there’s several different kinds of accommodations that we share with apprentices and some include timing or schedule modification. So, for example, having individuals schedule breaks throughout the day as a way to save some cognitive energy and a reset and also on workflow optimization.

Marie Trudelle: [00:16:59.67] So, helping individuals create some scheduling techniques, whether that’s digital or in print. And we do a lot of work with executive functioning support. So, how can individuals use tools, charts to support with prioritization as our apprentices have a very, very full workload, and knowing what to do and when is often a challenge and an area of overwhelm. And then another area that we support with is providing material in alternative format. And so that can mean ensuring that apprentices have notes or their curriculum via video recording or assignments in large print. It could be Braille, but that the way in which individuals are receiving the content best matches with their style of learning. And so again, at Apprenti, we really focus on making the accommodation process transparent and having multiple opportunities for apprentices to disclose a disability or communicate that they can meet with the Access Team without sharing a diagnosis. And we believe that that has directly contributed to the high disclosure rate of 17%.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:23.04] This is like a master class right here, this last three minutes of conversation for somebody who was wanting to maybe improve their accommodation audit or their accommodation process. I think the most important piece here is that it’s not just standardized. It is customized. It starts with a conversation and the focus is on what the employee needs, not what the employer thinks they need. But it is a collaborative process. Yes, that takes time, but as you’re demonstrating, you have a much higher disclosure rate because, I believe, you’re asking these questions and it’s not just I’m telling you what you’re receiving as an accommodation, but you are connecting with that individual and exploring and really kind of taking a holistic approach that is customized to them. Because also they always don’t know exactly what they need. Especially if they are, I’ve, I’ve found like incredibly overwhelmed. They don’t even know where to begin. And that’s where your expertise can come in to help them discover what it is they, they really do need to support themselves. Talk to us about the apprenticeship journey from the side of the employer. What’s that like for them?

Emma Maclean: [00:19:40.65] The first step is going to be identifying a gap in the workforce, since apprenticeship is a method of workforce development. And specifically, I want to differentiate here from internships, which are more of a career exploration model, short term, getting exposure, that sort of thing. Whereas apprenticeship is an opportunity to get breadth and depth in a given occupation. So, the employer identifies this gap and then they generally need to register with local government agencies to formally create apprenticeship programs. They can customize apprenticeship programs to meet their individual needs. That might be, you know, the training program for its particular skills. And then that on-the-job training with mentoring for the apprentice. As part of what Apprenti offers to employers, we can handle the registration and administrative process associated with registered apprenticeship. We also source and train apprentices, so they’re ready to start that on-the-job training. So once Apprenti completes the initial screening, employers will interview potential candidates, select their apprentices, and then the apprentices go into that technical training. Then the employer is really focusing on developing that work plan. How do I take someone who’s just starting out on day one to being a fully qualified journey level worker on the last day of the apprenticeship? This is going to also include identifying managers and mentors who will support the apprentice’s learning. It might involve partnering with HR to make sure that they understand professional development programs that are already built in and part of what’s offered at that employer. And then once the apprentice starts the on-the-job training, that work plan is put into action. The manager and the apprentice are checking in at regular intervals. The apprentice is learning by shadowing mentors and doing their individual work. And we want to just assure that the apprentice is progressing along all the way to that final state as expected. So, the employer is really thinking about the apprentice as their employee and how do I take this person and make sure that on the last day of their apprenticeship, they could stay on and continue to be, say, a software developer, if that is what they want to do.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:00.62] I love that. And so helpful for the employer to understand how really Apprenti helps them walk through the process. So, they’re not in this alone. They don’t just start an apprenticeship program and say, here we go. Like we have experts who are coming in and helping them every single step of the way.

Emma MacLean: [00:22:18.80] And I’ve been talking really broadly about timeline. You know, just saying the technical training, the on-the-job training starts and then what happens when the apprenticeship is finished. But Apprenti supports every step of the way. So, we’re also checking in at regular intervals with the apprentice and with the employer, just making sure that things are on track. So, it’s not as if we send the apprentice and the employer out on their own. We are there to help support, troubleshoot. We’ve supported many, many employers and apprentices and so we have a lot of experience and can share, here are some pitfalls, here are some things that make programs excellent so that employers can execute the best program possible.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:59.06] And this is the third time we’ve had an individual from a group of people from Apprenti on the podcast. So Apprenti has been around and understands the space. They’re one of the first apprenticeship programs that is out there. Longest standing.

Emma MacLean: [00:23:14.54] Yes, apprenticeship is a time-tested model. We’ve just adapted that model for the tech environment. So, apprenticeships have been around for a long, long time. And what we’ve done is just helped shape that and be able to make it easy for employers to implement that in tech spaces.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:34.49] I love that. Well, let’s kind of talk a little bit for the employer about how they can create an inclusive apprenticeship, because as we mentioned, you have a 17% disclosure rate and you have an interactive accommodation, kind of discovery and audit process. So, what else can you share with HR leaders who want to have an apprenticeship program and make it more inclusive?

Marie Trudelle: [00:24:00.26] Yeah. Well, one thing that I think is important to, again, just reiterate is, is the skills gap when it comes to tech. And so, thousands of tech roles went unfilled last year and the year before. And we know that this trend will continue because American universities are just not producing enough graduates in engineering and IT roles to meet industry demands. And so, the apprenticeship model provides an opportunity to widen that talent pipeline. And it’s, we encourage HR to think about the many qualified individuals, including those with disabilities, that are often overlooked just because they don’t fall into conventional recruitment channels or maybe have standard backgrounds. And so, one thing that Emma and I did when we first joined Apprenti is look at job descriptions and look at what is included on these job descriptions that might be excluding individuals that’s actually not critical to perform the core function of that role. So, for example, lifting 10 pounds if they’re a software engineer, might pull some people out from that pool initially. But by removing that from the JD, you can actually widen that net.

Emma MacLean: [00:25:19.11] And innovation and creativity is so crucial for the tech field. So, you know, if I, if I might stand on my soapbox for a moment, inclusive apprenticeships can create an opportunity to bring in diverse candidates with diverse perspectives, which can be a differentiator, can bring in those individuals who are going to help innovate and create the next new thing rather than being trapped in our hiring patterns. This can really help bring in a new perspective.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:46.89] I think right now we’re going through a correction in the markets. Tech is leading the way. However, this is a long-term problem, which is the, the tech talent, not having enough. So, this short-term correction that’s happening, it is not going, the long-term lack of talent pipeline in the tech space is not going to change. So this is really a way to build a funnel and create a talent pool that brings in different kinds of individuals into your organization maybe than you’ve had before, but also to solve the problem of “I don’t have enough people in the tech space, even with this correction” and let’s say the visas and we open the floodgates, it’s still not enough for what we need, which is why apprenticeships, in my opinion, offer such a great option and solution to help really enhance that in your organization.

Marie Trudelle: [00:26:49.40] Definitely. And as you said, we’re in a time where the markets are changing a little bit. But if we take a step back, the overall context is one where we have entered into a world of technology that is rapidly changing. And so, the methods that we used to solve the problems of today will not help us solve the problems of tomorrow. And I think because tech changes variables in what industry needs so rapidly, it’s difficult for four-year universities to keep pace with those needs and for a curriculum to change and for that to be approved. And so, it’s exciting to see how the model of apprenticeship can be more flexible and adapt quickly to our changing world.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:42.34] Agreed. It’s like trying to send a text message on a rotary phone. It’s not working. So, we’ve got to, we’ve got to get to the iPhone and the Android times, Right, with your mobile device to be able to communicate. Your recruiting process shouldn’t be like your rotary phone. So, apprenticeships are a way to help you bring in new faces, new innovations, new ideas and new processes and systems to help, to help your organization just run more effectively. Last question for you all. How do apprenticeships support career development for those who participate?

Emma MacLean: [00:28:22.75] This is my favorite thing to talk about when it comes to apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is an amazing tool for career development. Many individuals, not just those with disabilities, are experiential learners, and apprenticeship gives people the opportunity to get hands-on experience. We know that college is not a pathway that works for every person, and so apprenticeship can be a really amazing pathway for those learners. When we think about individuals who have been in our program, over 88% of Apprenti participants stay on with their employers after the time of their apprenticeship being completed. It’s a train-to-retain model so the employer benefits because they’ve trained up a worker who can then stay on with them. And the apprentice benefits because they get the opportunity to continue and learn and grow in their career. Before coming to Apprenti, 24% of our apprentices were unemployed and many more were underemployed in those roles. Individuals earn about $86,000 a year average income post the apprenticeship. But looking at our national data, which is 115% average increase in the apprentices’ income. So, this is a real impactful difference in the apprentice’s life, not just, you know, not just development in an abstract sense, but actual monetary change and meaningful change for this individual. Career development doesn’t have to just be for people who are early in their career. We’ve had many successful apprentices who are re-entering the workforce or changing career. The average age of our apprentices is around 32 years old, so I just share that to say as well, apprenticeship is career development that can be implemented for many, many individuals and can be applicable in many parts of people’s careers. So, I really think it is an excellent opportunity for people to get to learn and grow and build in a career.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:26.03] I love it. And we have had a number of apprentices that have graduated through various programs on this podcast over the years and it is indeed life changing and they know that and they appreciate that. And there’s, I believe, increased loyalty from that employer because they took a chance, they tried something new and that individual benefits, but also the employer benefits, too.

Emma MacLean: [00:30:52.78] Yes, everyone benefits from this. And you know, the apprentices are doing that hard work. If we open the door, you can get these workers in who have amazing potential that is completely untapped.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:04.99] Well, I loved our conversation, and I appreciate you, Marie and Emma, for talking with us today. I’m going to include a link to the Apprenti website as well as a host of resources. We have so many great resources for you and your LinkedIn profiles. If people have specific questions, is, is there a place that they should go to connect with Apprenti? Faster, quicker than the resources that we have listed on the page.

Emma MacLean: [00:31:35.98] I encourage them to reach out to us on, on LinkedIn. If they have any questions, we are pretty responsive there.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:43.24] I love that, LinkedIn, it is social media for the win. It’s such a great way to connect with people directly. So, shoot them a note, say, “Hey, I heard you on the Workology podcast. I have some questions there.” They have so many great resources for employers to, to get started on their apprenticeship programs, making them more inclusive and bringing in diverse talent to your organization. So, thank you, to both of you, for taking the time to chat with us today.

Marie Trudelle: [00:32:09.29] Thanks, Jessica.

Emma MacLean: [00:32:10.40] Thank you for having us.

Closing: [00:32:11.75] This is such an interesting area of focus for HR leaders. Personally, I think it is more important than ever. Even with this current correction happening, we need to think strategically about building talent for organizations, especially in the tech sector. And honestly, all companies are technology companies at this point. So, we all need new individuals, bringing them into our organization that are trained and developed and ready to go to step into these technology roles. It’s also important to think about mentorship and apprenticeships, how they can grow in their own careers. What an opportunity like this through a program like Apprenti can really do to change their lives. I love being able to hear directly from members of the Apprenti team. It is so great. Emma and Marie, I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us today. I want to hear from you. Text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005. Ask me questions, leave comments, and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. I don’t think that we enough are sitting down and talking to members of our workforce outside of our businesses and I think this is something that we should do more of, connecting with new people, learning about new ideas like apprenticeship programs. These are such great ways to work with new talent pools and drive engaged, qualified new employees to our workplaces, not just for the short term, but for the long term. I want to thank you for listening to the Workology podcast as well as thank you to PIA, who is powering this podcast series on inclusive apprenticeship programs. Have a great day.