Today there are more than 6 million job openings in the United States, and more than 500,000 people with disabilities are seeking jobs.
What this tells us is that job creators are ready to hire, and there is a tremendous opportunity to increase the number of disabled individuals in the workforce. But there is a gap between the jobs that are available and the workers who have the right skills to fill them.
Across the U.S. Department of Labor, and especially at the Office of Disability Employment Policy, we work to fully integrate people with disabilities into the labor force and empower all Americans with resources to succeed.
To overcome this skills gap, we need demand-driven education. Apprenticeships are an example of demand-driven education because they directly connect students with employers, and combine paid work experience with an education.
Derek Schwartz is one example. After graduating from high school, the Philadelphia native applied to the Urban Technology Project program and began working as a paid IT apprentice at Central High School. In addition to a paycheck, the program gave Derek real-world experience, which led to his recent employment as a help desk analyst at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Now he’s working in a job he loves, with a significant salary increase.
“Apprenticeship is an excellent learning opportunity and an effective alternative to college,” said Derek, who is hard of hearing. “It has taught me not only a lot about computers and the upkeep tasks involved, but also how to be professional in the working world as a person with a disability.”
There are a number of advantages for apprentices, including high-wage jobs. The average starting salary for a graduate of an apprenticeship program is $60,000 – well above the national median for all occupations and higher than the average starting salary of a four-year college graduate.
And because apprenticeships typically combine classroom instruction with paid on-the-job training, they’re an appealing option for people who want to pursue a career without incurring student debt.
Also, apprentices usually work alongside a skilled employee or mentor during the on-the-job component. Learning directly from someone who is successful in their chosen field can benefit apprentices from different backgrounds and educational experiences – including people with disabilities, women, and other under-represented populations – who may not see themselves reflected in that field’s current workforce.
President Trump’s recent Executive Order on apprenticeships directs the Department of Labor to promote development of apprenticeship programs by third parties, such as trade and industry groups, companies, nonprofits, and unions.
Apprenticeship programs such as these should and will be open to all workers regardless of disability. All Americans need the opportunity to gain the skills they need to fill the jobs of the 21st Century.
Carolyn Jones is a Senior Policy Adviser on ODEP’s Youth Policy Team.