Expanding Access and Meeting Employer Needs: More Opportunities for People with Disabilities


Population / Age / Demographic Served
People with Disabilities

By educating state vocational rehabilitation agencies about apprenticeship opportunities, we can help increase access to people with disabilities.

Publication Date
July 18 2018
By Tom Hooper, Associate Vice President, JFF

In March, Chris Hall registered as an apprentice at the Hershey Company’s facility in Stuart’s Draft, Virginia, where he is participating in the candy maker’s 3,000-hour Industrial Manufacturing Technician program. Chris, who has ADHD, is learning to be a “case stacker,” a job that involves cleaning and maintaining the robots that pack the company’s popular Mounds and Almond Joy chocolate bars. In a podcast, he said the role has changed his life by making him more independent and giving him the opportunity to pursue a future with a career.

Chris is the first graduate of the pre-apprenticeship Manufacturing Technician Training program at the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center in Fisherville, Virginia. In the podcast, he said this program prepared him for the job at Hershey because he learned what it was like to work in a manufacturing environment, how to work as a team, and other skills. Earlier this year, Chris spoke at a Job-Driven VR Technical Assistance Center (JD-VRTAC) convening in Dallas, Texas. He highlighted the role that Registered Apprenticeship (RA) and other work-based learning (WBL) programs can play in helping people with disabilities enhance their skills while meeting the needs of employers.  

Apprenticeship in the U.S. is undergoing a transformation, becoming a more widely adopted workforce development solution that expands American workers’ access to high-wage jobs with strong demand from employers. Over the past four years, U.S. employers have hired more than 150,000 new apprentices annually, helping build on the 80-year history of RA. Employers across the country, in a range of industries from health care to manufacturing to hospitality, are participating in RA and other forms of WBL programs to help meet their need for skilled workers.

As part of this nationwide transformation, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, along with other national stakeholders, have placed a significant emphasis on helping more individuals in non-traditional labor pools, such as people with disabilities, access RAs. People with disabilities have historically faced a number of challenges in accessing RAs. These challenges include a lack of awareness of programs among state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies, which are the primary federally-funded agencies that support workforce development and related services for this population. Other issues are a perception among people with disabilities that careers available through college pathways are preferable to careers through RA, and challenges among state VR agencies in engaging state apprenticeship and other relevant agencies. JFF recently published a brief expanding upon these issues in the hospitality realm (see What we Know About Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship for Individuals with Disabilities in Hospitality). 

One key component of these national efforts to expand access to RAs and other forms of high-quality WBL is the JD-VRTAC, an 18-month technical assistance project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The JD-VRTAC is designed to help state VR agencies increase their awareness and use of RAs and other WBL opportunities. Led by the University of Massachusetts Institute for Community Inclusion, in partnership with JFF and other key partners, this pilot project has resulted in a series of training sessions, case studies, and other deliverables to support state VR agencies in their use of pre-apprenticeships, RAs, and paid internships. These deliverables include:

  • Webinar: Pre-apprenticeship Programs: A Model for Skill-Enhancement with Strong Employment Connections, which provides an overview of pre-apprenticeship programs, from the types of skills on which they focus to their connection with RA programs. It also offers tips for partnering with and participating in these programs.
  • Webinar: Building Blocks of Registered Apprenticeship (RA): A Deep Dive into RA Implementation, which explores topics such as the core components of RAs, suggestions for developing RA models that meet the needs of people with disabilities, tips for RA program replication, and the role VR agencies can play in RA programs.
  • Webinar: Key First Steps for Connecting with Registered Apprenticeship Programs, which provides an overview of key steps that state VR agencies can take to identify RA programs in their area, recommendations for conducting outreach to those programs, and an explanation of the specific components of RA to explore in these initial conversations.
  • Case Studies: Three case studies that highlight state VR agencies that have successfully implemented paid internships and other strong WBL models (two case studies have been completed, and one is still under development.
  • Apprenticeship Implementation Guide: A brief but thorough guide that lays out specific steps that state VR agencies can take to explore and begin participating in pre-apprenticeship and RA programs.
  • Pre-Apprenticeship Fact Sheet: A helpful overview of pre-apprenticeships, including organizations involved with these programs with whom state VR agencies could consider collaborating.

While these materials were developed for the JD-VRTAC for use by state VR agencies and their partners, the topics and examples in them are widely applicable for a range of stakeholders interested in participating in WBL programs. For example, all three webinars include a JFF subject matter expert on WBL, as well as state or local practitioners currently implementing these programs. The webinar on pre-apprenticeship is helpful for any organization considering participating in such a program, from local workforce development boards to community-based organizations. 

JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning is excited to amplify the work of the JD-VRTAC project, helping more people with disabilities access apprenticeships by sharing the JD-VRTAC’s tools with a wide range of stakeholders nationwide. The Center is involved in a number of critical efforts to expand the adoption of RA and other WBL models, including a comprehensive nationwide initiative funded by and other organizations to provide on-the-ground technical assistance to launch and expand apprenticeships and other WBL models.

For more information on the JD-VRTAC and the information provided above, visit the Explore VR website. The website includes the Paid Work Experiences Toolkit, which houses the case studies, implementation guide, and fact sheet described above.

For additional information on JFF and resources that can support WBL, visit JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning.

For more information on Chris’s experience with pre-apprenticeship and Registered Apprenticeship, visit the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board’s website.

This blog was funded by the generous support of as part of JFF’s Apprenticeship Awareness and Expansion Initiative. The national initiative expands apprenticeship and other high-quality, structured work-based learning programs through on-the-ground technical assistance and a resource and communications campaign.