Vinz Koller HeadshotEpisode 1: Vinz Koller, Senior Strategist for Capacity Building at Social Policy Research (SPR) Associates

Vinz discusses what employers and HR leaders should know about the benefits of investing in inclusive apprenticeship programs


Intro: [00:00:00.15] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of, 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: [00:00:25.32] More and more companies are discovering a proven strategy for building a highly skilled workforce to grow and to thrive. That is through apprenticeship programs. Combining classroom instruction with on-the-job training, apprenticeship programs can help your company bring a new and a more diverse talent pool into your workplace. 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, or ODEP. In November, 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 and high demand jobs. Today, I’m joined by Vinz Koller. He’s a Senior Strategist for Capacity Building at Social Policy Research Associates. Social Policy Research Associates, or SPR, is a nationally recognized research, evaluation and technical assistance firm located in Oakland, California. They specialize in providing services related to employment assistance, job training, education, youth, and diversity and equity, as well as effective philanthropy, health and comprehensive social services. Vince, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Vinz Koller: [00:01:54.84] Thank you. Nice to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:56.66] Awesome. I’m so excited to have you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get involved in workforce development?

Vinz Koller: [00:02:04.41] Well, it started out as a summer job helping young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods find work. And I was hooked. I never left. It was remarkable to see how young people who didn’t always have very high expectations for themselves blossomed when they were connected to a job and to a mission. And that outlook changed everything for them.

Vinz Koller: [00:02:26.97] And the motivation for me is still the same. Now, I just get to study it on a national scale, looking at national trends, helping organizations thrive and organizations find new access to talent. So that’s a big motivation for me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:43.62] Can you talk about our current economy and how it impacts employment when it comes to people with disabilities?

Vinz Koller: [00:02:50.16] Well, we are in a proverbial winter, economically speaking. Jobless claims are high, new postings are still low, and prospects are uncertain because we’re in the middle of another spike in infections that has reduced both the consumer demands, it’s curtailed travel, and led to a contraction in the economy. As with other economic trends, people with disabilities are hit harder than the general population. A survey even by the end of August found that 20 percent of people with disabilities had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. And that’s significantly higher than the job losses among all workers. But there are also some bright spots worth mentioning. Tech companies, online retailers, and certain segments of health care have been growing and hiring or looking for talent. And other bright spots are that the home office is obviously the biggest growth sector of all, with lots of knowledge workers now working from home. And that has the prospect of making some jobs more accessible for that reason alone, especially if the home office ends up being with us to stay even after the pandemic. And there is definitely an expectation that that could be the case.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:12.08] What about for employers? What should HR leaders be thinking about for talent acquisition and career development for people with disabilities?

Vinz Koller: [00:04:20.09] Well, while it’s true that demand for talent overall is down, some sectors, as I mentioned before, are in growth mode. And filling those jobs is not necessarily easier just because now that there are more people looking for work. Some of the strong talent is holding out in the hope that their old employer will bring them back when the economy recovers. So, for employers that are in hiring mode, ensuring that their talent pool is diverse and inclusive is even more critical, and the opportunities to make it so are real. One bright spot that has persisted even during the economic downturn are apprenticeships. It’s this tried-and-true method of having employers not just be consumers of talent, but actual producers of talent. And in fact, all businesses are in the talent development business, whether they know it or not or whether they are consciously aware of it or not. But by making sure that their talent development aspect of their business is part of a registered apprenticeship program, they have more resources to draw on.

Vinz Koller: [00:05:27.83] And in that spirit, the Partnership for Inclusive Apprenticeship is working to help companies and industries diversify their pool of apprentices. And it turns out people with disabilities are still one of the largest under-tapped potential in this talent pool. We often talk about a skills gap out there. It really is a bit of a talent gap. It’s access to talent, finding the talent, bringing it in efficiently. That’s what often is constraining growth in companies, even in an overall economic downturn.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:59.62] I love that you’re mentioning apprenticeships because we’re probably, I know I am familiar with apprenticeships, but I hadn’t thought about it maybe in the way that you’re describing. So, this is very interesting. I can’t wait to learn more about this.

Vinz Koller: [00:06:13.40] Yeah, I think it is one of those hidden secrets that’s been around with us for thousands of years, but traditionally, especially in the U.S., has been seen primarily as a method of training workers in the trades. But now we’re seeing many sectors gravitating toward this way of developing talent because it does have a number of advantages over other ways to onboard individuals.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:41.32] I want to talk more about apprenticeships in a minute, but first, I wanted to dive into some benefits for companies that invest in programs that help them expand their talent pool and internal resources through reaching people with disabilities. What are the benefits of those?

Vinz Koller: [00:06:56.35] Well, certainly the diversity of the workforce has its own intrinsic benefit, and explicit benefit by matching the customer base, depending on what business you’re in, matching what the customer looks like is always good for a business. And so, having diversity inside your company, of course, is beneficial, and there’s lots of evidence to support that. There is also a financial benefit. We have some evidence from reports by Accenture, for example, who show that companies who embrace best practices for employing and supporting people with disabilities earn almost a third more revenue and have doubled their net income than their peers. Access to public and private funding, as well as tax credits, support implementation of a more inclusive talent development strategy.

Vinz Koller: [00:07:49.75] And it turns out, if you improve and sort of overall expand your recruitment, you also reduce the time spent on review as a means of interviewing. Because, again, if you can expand your pool, you’re actually more likely to find the proverbial fish that you’re looking for. And it turns out there is a higher retention among people with disabilities than the population at large. And then there’s one more thing. And that has to do with the accessible workplace. It turns out that an accessible workplace increases productivity for all. And we just went through the largest live experiment in expanding and making the workplace more accessible in U.S. history.

Vinz Koller: [00:08:29.89] And that’s the home office. It really made the American workplace more accessible for, not for all workers admittedly, but for knowledge workers and those who can actually bring the work home. And that has some benefits. It does make the workplace more accessible. But that also means that some steps have to be taken to make sure that that workplace is accessible, and those steps benefit all workers. It turns out, we noticed that in my company, that those of us who were not working from home before and are now working from home actually saw an increase in their productivity. Now it comes a little bit at a cost if you know about trying to keep work and home life sane and safe.

Vinz Koller: [00:09:13.69] But it does have some real potential benefits in the long term. And productivity is way up in most sectors that can operate in the home office environment.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:24.28] I love that you mentioned productivity because I have worked from home for many, many years and until now, present day, people had viewed working from home as people who worked less or were lounging. It was all yoga pants and flip flops. And what we’re finding, and what you’re saying, is that people who work from home in many cases, and I experienced this myself, they are more productive, and they do better work. And they do, they’re working more, unfortunately. But I do my best work at home.

Vinz Koller: [00:09:52.54] No, that is true. I mean, I think it is an issue of drawing that line. I’ve been doing this for 20 years myself as well. Drawing the line between work and home life is a little more difficult. And so, again, there are things that companies can do to help that, and the employees themselves can learn over time. But the overall accessibility of work and the productivity is actually positively affected. And many, many employers are now finding that out. They’ve been forced into it, but it can have a positive side effect in the long run.

Break: [00:10:23.04] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we are talking with Vinz Koller about workforce development and apprenticeship programs.

Break: [00:10:33.57] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of the 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). In November, 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: [00:11:10.74] We’re talking about training and upskilling our workers. We want to retain them. We want them to be more productive and happier, more well-rounded and fulfilled people. I wanted to ask you how much money and time are employers spending to upskill and train these employees? And maybe how can apprenticeships offset this time and the resources investment?

Vinz Koller: [00:11:33.19] That’s a very good question. I think onboarding costs vary widely and are not all very reliable. But some companies spend a few hundred dollars, some spend thousands, and some spend the first, second, annual wage pool on hiring a new employee.

Vinz Koller: [00:11:50.43] So the costs are, they tend to be underestimated. They are relatively high for many companies. And the way an apprenticeship can help offset this time and resources is that when you bring someone on as an apprentice, by definition while they’re an apprentice, they are in a job status that is costing a little less because they’re not getting a full wage of a journeyperson in that same occupation. So, it’s understood that they are operating, and they’re not expected to operate at full productivity. Whereas if you onboard someone without an apprenticeship, even though you are understanding also that they’re probably not operating at 100 percent in their first year, say, you still basically have to pay them their full wage. So, an apprenticeship is actually an opportunity to really recognize there is this training period.

Vinz Koller: [00:12:41.10] It also comes with offsets. So, there are some tax benefits depending on what state you’re in, or what rules you’re operating under. So, some of those training costs, whether they be in your company, or sometimes some of the classroom training that’s part of an apprenticeship are offsite, say, in a community college or some other training institution. Those costs are borne by either the school or it could be a government subsidy. So, in the end, your costs overall go down as part of that training package that you offer that employee. And you still have the opportunity at the end of the apprenticeship to say, you know, this has been great, but probably is not the perfect match or, hey, you are now fully trained. We love what you’ve been doing. And the employee says, this is what I’ve been looking for and the match is made. And you continue on as a regular employee. So, it’s not that you’re locked in with the individual, but there is enough of a commitment that the investment is worthwhile, that you as a company are making in this individual to bring them on board.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:45.36] I love it. I think that it’s such a great way to test. That employee is, is testing the employer out, but they’re getting real skills and gaining knowledge that they can apply, whether it’s at that current place or maybe somewhere new in the future. And that as an employer, we get to test that person out, too. So, in some ways, it’s a win-win. Everybody wins because you’re getting work done and you’re driving productivity. And then that employee is getting a wage and learning a new skill. So, whether they go to the employer or somewhere else, they’re able to increase their earning potential, which is life changing.

Vinz Koller: [00:14:20.25] Absolutely. And I think that is, that is really the key, is that you end up having the benefit of a structured training program and you are not incurring all the risks of a full new hire in the same way that you would if you, if you didn’t have that training period.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:39.48] I want to dive in and ask you about myths around apprenticeships. So, what are, let’s bust the myths here and talk about why they’re wrong when it comes to apprenticeships.

Vinz Koller: [00:14:49.89] Well, I think the biggest myth is that it’s for hard hat occupations on a construction site, right? That’s what the expectation is. That’s what people have in mind when they think of the apprentice. And that is a significant portion of the apprenticeship market in the U.S.

Vinz Koller: [00:15:04.80] But the biggest growth these days occurs in another part of the market, and that’s the non-traditional apprenticeships. That’s tech. It’s health care, it’s advanced manufacturing. There are cars being built by apprentices and their plans, for that matter, and even space rockets. So that’s where the real growth happens in apprenticeship. And then there are accounting firms and the insurance companies that are hiring apprentices and using apprenticeship as a way to train. So that’s the biggest myth is where does it occur? What kind of occupations are part of it? There are some other myths around the fact that it’s, you know, there’s a lot of red tape involved. I would say it is not insignificant what it takes to start an apprenticeship program, but there are some intermediaries that make that easier. So, it’s not really, an individual company doesn’t really have to start a new program on their own. They can connect with organizations that act as these intermediaries that help, perhaps industry-wide, to set up programs so that an individual company, again, doesn’t have to wade through the red tape and try to figure this out. And I think then there are some myths around how hard is it to train individuals.

Vinz Koller: [00:16:21.70] Do I have the time to train them? I would say companies have been investing, for example, in internships and have used that as a way to attract talent. I’d say an apprenticeship, by contrast, is a much safer bet for an investment, because once you invest in that individual, the likelihood that they stay with you is actually very high.

Vinz Koller: [00:16:42.37] Again, if it’s a good match. Whereas with an internship, the likelihood, you know, the individual goes off and goes to college and then goes somewhere else is pretty high as well. So, in some ways, an apprenticeship is a better bet in that regard. Then there are some specific myths around hiring people with disabilities through this mechanism. And that’s part of what the Partnership for Inclusive Apprenticeship and another project, the Apprenticeship Inclusion Model, we’re there to make sure that we sort of look into how can we make this model accessible to people with disabilities? And so there’s also a whole set of supportive measures that can help make sure that this way of training individuals in this access point into the labor market is inclusive.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:26.50] What should our leaders consider when developing apprenticeship programs for these new growth opportunities?

Vinz Koller: [00:17:33.31] Well, I think every business that is looking for talent is looking for an untapped talent pool, whether they know it or not. That really is what we’re looking for. We want to reduce, hopefully, the hiring cost.

Vinz Koller: [00:17:47.92] We want to increase the chance that we are finding the right person for the job. And I think the largest untapped talent pool are people with disabilities. They are a large sector of the population as a whole, and they are underemployed overall, and they bring enormous talent. And it’s again, as with all job matching, it’s a question of finding them to match. And with people with disabilities, there is some accommodation. Sometimes that’s necessary, often that’s necessary. But that is also possible and it’s a worthwhile investment. And so the opportunity to have diversity and inclusion be part of that and making sure that as you cast the net and as you look for talent, and all of us do this regularly as we grow, and sometimes we contract a little bit, but then we grow again, having a mechanism to ensure that that first casting of the net is inclusive and that then the onboarding, both the screening process is inclusive and does not sort of filter out individuals that actually are very well suited for our job. We went through this recently in just looking through some of our job descriptions and realizing we had requirements in there that none of us ever actually had to use. And we realized they are actually filters that would probably filter someone out that might have a limitation or disability or, you know, and we’re talking about lifting thirty pounds was in our job description.

Vinz Koller: [00:19:13.12] Well, I don’t know that for the job I’ve lifted 30 pounds in a long time. I mean, there are those kinds of artifacts that can actually reduce the talent pool in ways that we don’t intend. And then obviously, again, if we try to figure out how do we do this in an inclusive way, there are programs that help support the development and training of people with disabilities and also that help with the accommodation so that the training program is universally designed. And I would say for the company, the benefit is not just to get at that talent pool. It turns out your workplace ends up being a better workplace. And often if you’re a customer-facing business, the way you interact with customers also benefits from the fact that you now have this diversity within your company, because you are more aware of the diversity that exists outside. So, I would say there are a lot of benefits, but I would say at the top of those is simply the fact that there’s an untapped pool of talent that we cannot afford not to tap into.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:15.04] We talked a little bit about the virtual workplace and how having our offices at home makes the workplace so much more accessible. I think we will continue to see companies’ support in these remote and dispersed workforces. But I wanted to ask you, does this change how we approach apprenticeships for people with disabilities? How do we do apprenticeships remotely and dispersed?

Vinz Koller: [00:20:38.74] And here we are again in a, in a live experiment nationwide. Right. I mean, we have had to figure this out. I mean, most companies had to learn how to do the Zoom meeting and how to find the unmute button and all of those things and we are still struggling with that, honestly. And I do that myself. And I run these kinds of meetings all the time.

Vinz Koller: [00:20:59.17] But there is a broader understanding now about accessibility, now that we understand how technology actually impacts and can quickly change the way we do business. And that is an asset. That makes our economy vibrant and it makes it resilient. And it makes all of us who are now working from the home office still as productive and in some cases more productive than we were before. We just have to make sure that we don’t leave people behind. And that starts with simple things, of how accessible the platforms are.

Vinz Koller: [00:21:32.29] And I would say platform developers are keenly aware of this and are constantly working on this and are actually quite good at it. So many of the tools that we’re using have different methods. It means that, for example, I’ll just give you one example of the Zoom meetings or WebEx meetings or whatever platform you’re using. You know, having live captioning in those meetings is enormously beneficial, not just for people who actually can’t hear the proceedings and need to read it, but for all of us afterwards. We have a record. That live caption is there. It’s cheap and sometimes it’s free, depending on what tool you use. And I’m sure over the next few years that will be a free resource because it will be machine automated. But there’s a lot of machine learning that needs to happen in order to make things more accessible. Now, that also means that some jobs go away, but often new ones appear in the process. So, I think making sure that the accessibility is there in these platforms, in the way we interact both with our fellow workers and then with our customers. And then in an apprenticeship environment what’s always interesting is if you have apprentices, and this is one of the things that employers tell us when they have apprentices, it changes the way you do work because apprentices have this habit of, sometimes uncomfortable habit, of asking why are we doing this the way we’re doing it? And then the answer, the obvious answer is, well, this is the way it’s always been.

Vinz Koller: [00:22:59.98] Well, that’s probably not good enough. And if we listen to what these newcomers to the workplace have, the questions they have to ask, they often are the solution to a problem that we didn’t know we had. And I know that some tech companies, I can think of telecommunications companies that have apprentices, they say if we didn’t have, and in those cases, they have 10 percent of their workforce as apprentices coming in every year, 10 percent new people are apprentices. That is their key to their success because those newcomers are the young people that, generally young people, that know how the market operates on the outside. They speak the language of the next generation, and that is important for those companies’ survival. And so, again, accessibility comes in all sorts of different ways. But making sure that you listen to what apprentices have to say and need is part of learning as a company, and that has some significant benefits.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:59.56] Vinz, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, enlightening and opening our eyes about the area of apprenticeships. It’s something that I want to learn more about, and I want to learn more about you and I’m thinking that our listeners do, too. Where do they go to connect with you and learn more about the work that you’re doing?

Vinz Koller: [00:24:17.02] Well, I’m certainly happy to talk about this. I’m passionate about apprenticeship. I’m passionate about exclusivity. You can reach me through my LinkedIn page or through That’s Social Policy Research Associates, the company that I work for where we, our mission is to make the workplace better, to study workplace trends, workforce trends, education trends, and have those institutions serve us for the betterment of the community.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:43.78] Thank you again. And we’ll include links to your employer, the website you mentioned, and then also your LinkedIn too in the show notes. So, they’ll be able to connect with you in many ways as well. Thank you so much.

Vinz Koller: [00:24:57.10] Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

Closing: [00:24:58.64] I really appreciate Vince’s insights on this special podcast episode. This kicks off our new series with PIA. When apprenticeship programs are inclusive of people with disabilities, the value of the on-the-job training model is magnified. That’s because people with disabilities are an important dimension of the workforce as well as of our workforce diversity and people with disabilities are an untapped talent pool. Thank you to Vinz as well as PIA. And also, as always, our podcast sponsor, Workology.