Apprenticeships can also work in white-collar professions

Provide path to address racism and pandemic challenges

FOR GENERATIONS, Massachusetts industries have used apprenticeships to develop young talent and build expertise in demanding blue-collar fields, often working hand-in-hand with government agencies.

As we cope with the impact of two interwoven crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion of anger over racism in America – and grapple with a response, here’s a practical path forward. Let’s use that apprentice model to create opportunities for young black and brown people in a host of white-collar businesses. And let’s start with the Commonwealth’s banking industry.

Why? Because we’ve had a modest head-start. Last September, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development approved the first apprentice program for bank employees. The program grew out of an initiative by our community bank in Reading, with an eye to focusing on recruits from Lawrence, one of the poorest cities in the state.

Twelve employees have registered under the newly approved apprenticeship guidelines. State officials who worked with us to design the program were excited about the prospect of other banks embracing it. Then the pandemic hit.

Now the combination of the nationwide protests against racism and the glaring impact of the pandemic on minorities have spotlighted the fierce racial inequities and structural injustice in our economy and our society more broadly, prompting many corporations to express a commitment to spend resources on diversity, to listen more carefully, and to change their corporate culture.

Here’s a chance for professional businesses to act on their stated commitment. As we emerge from the pandemic-driven downturn and seek innovative responses to racial disparities, why not expand opportunities for young people of color to join businesses in upwardly mobile career paths.

Robert F. Smith, the billionaire financier and richest black man in America, told the New York Times that a corporate internship changed his life as a young man. He has called for a drastic increase in internships for black people as a high-impact opportunity builder.

The apprenticeship option for banks takes that important idea a step further. Apprenticeships are well suited for regulated industries like banking because the apprentice programs are governed by state-approved competencies and standards and apply transparent criteria for upward mobility – resulting in a certificate of competence that is recognized nationwide.

State and federal labor officials have worked for several years to extend apprenticeships beyond construction and other traditional industries. In July 2018, Rosalin Acosta, the Commonwealth’s secretary of labor and workforce development, unveiled an apprenticeship expansion plan, encouraging tech and other industries to offer registered apprentice programs. Of the 9,500 registered apprentices in Massachusetts, the plan said just 9 percent were female, 10 percent were black, and 8 percent Latino. For those who do register as apprentices, the return can be high. The plan cites research that “apprentices have a $240,000+ lifetime earning advantage in salary compared to non-participants.”

In April 2019, officials from the Executive Office of Workforce Development spoke to a group of bankers in Lawrence, seeking banks’ participation in a pilot apprenticeship program. Ours was the only bank to volunteer. Over the following months, we worked with the Department of Labor Standards apprenticeship team, devising a program, including a checklist of competencies in retail banking from entry-level teller up through customer service representative, assistant branch manager, and branch manager.

Among the dozen employees who registered as apprentices are several new recruits from Greater Lawrence Technical High School; some came to us from a banking training program offered by Lawrence Community Works, a non-profit providing training for residents of Lawrence. In February, our first six apprentices received certification and are moving up within the organization. These apprenticeships are available to high school graduates; no college degree required.

Meet the Author

Maxine Hart

Chief human resources officer, Reading Cooperative Bank
Meet the Author

Julieann Thurlow

President and CEO, Reading Cooperative Bank
The apprentices work alongside experienced bankers, are often assigned a mentor, master agreed competencies, and meet required training hours to receive certification as they complete training for each job level. Our program currently includes only retail banking, but the goal is to extend the apprenticeship model to other areas of banking such as residential and commercial lending.

This is the tiniest of starts, but the door is now open thanks to the state initiative. It is up to those of us working in white-collar professions to take up this chance to make a contribution to the pandemic recovery, and in the process to make a dent in our society’s deep racial inequities.

Maxine Hart is chief human resources officer and Julieann Thurlow is president and chief executive of Reading Cooperative Bank.