Apprenticeship as an Alternative Hiring Strategy for a Neurodiverse Workforce

Written by Susan Fitzell

There’s one approach to neurodiverse hiring that has not received much notice in the United States: apprenticeships. Data from the United Kingdom (UK)(HM Government, 2020), where renewed interest in apprenticeships has spurred relevant research, indicates that 89% of employers said apprenticeships helped companies develop skills pertinent to their organization. Over 74% of employers said apprenticeships helped them improve productivity and the quality of their product or service.

I remember a time when teens who weren’t into academics and preferred to work with their hands had the option of becoming an apprentice. Starting in secondary school or after graduation, they worked side-by-side with a plumber, electrician, carpenter, etc. They learned the trade hands-on. These opportunities are almost non-existent today. Now, they must (usually) go to a tech school. More school!

One out of five apprentices may be neurodivergent. (Kirby, 2021) Consequently, it’s essential to discover and maximize their strengths.

Any two individuals with neurodivergent attributes have different combinations of strengths. For example, “One person with Dyslexia may have predominant challenges with spelling and another with reading comprehension. The first person may also have difficulties communicating verbally, and the second person may have additional challenges relating to ADHD traits such as time management.” Consequently, their training and support must be tailored to meet their needs.

If that seems daunting, consider that this is true of over 50% of your workers, whether identified as neurodivergent or not! Most corporate learning initiatives reap minimal engagement and success because they are canned learning modules that do not consider individual learning preferences. By providing individualized options for learning and training, ALL employees benefit, which means the company benefits from their corporate learning investment.

One of the challenges both companies and apprentice candidates face is the lack of confidence that has evolved during the school years for neurodivergent adults. Most were labeled learning disabled during their school years. Some were labeled lazy, slow, or unmotivated. Sadly, because schools operate with a deficit mindset instead of a gifts mindset, neurodivergent students go through the school years believing they are not intelligent. This reality exists even though many are not only smart but talented in unique ways. They just don’t learn and thrive the way schools dictate learning should happen.

 So, for the best chance of success with apprenticeship programs, the workplace culture must support brain diversity — or neurodiversity.

“Apprentices who received support over the three-month period increased in confidence by 14% on average, and their motivation increased by 16% on average. Crucially, learners who did not have identified learning needs and, therefore, did not receive support experienced no increase in confidence or motivation over the same period.”(Cecile, 2020)

This study is critical because, as previous scientific research has revealed, “Measures of confidence have the highest correlation with academic achievement.”(Sanchez-Ruiz et al., 2016)

Seven companies that have established tech apprenticeships for professionals from diverse backgrounds stand out:

  • IBM- Apprenticeship program
  • Google- Tech Apprenticeship Program
  • Airbnb Connect Software Engineering Apprenticeship
  • Accenture- Apprenticeship Program
  • LinkedIn- REACH Engineering apprenticeship program
  • Microsoft- LEAP Apprenticeship Program
  • Pinterest- Tech Apprenticeship Program

What can companies do to facilitate successful apprenticeships?

World bank listed three ways companies can successfully implement apprenticeships (Datta et al., 2020):

  1. Create a consortium where businesses can collaborate to design apprenticeship programs. For instance, in France, Sodexo, a food service enterprise; Adecco Group, a staffing firm; Accor, a hospitality company; and Korian, a nursing facility company, collaborated to establish an apprenticeship training center that focuses on culinary arts.
  2. Work with local universities and colleges. In Costa Rica, Intel is leveraging a student-worker model to recruit students part-time so they can gain work experience.
  3. Introduce work contracts and certifications. A contract guarantees fair wages for all, while certification injects elements of formality to the experience. In the Republic of Benin, craftspeople partnered with the local government to secure government-issued certificates for apprentices. Every apprentice goes through a practical and supervised exam by the local trade association when they ‘graduate’ from the program.

Skill-based interviews
When screening candidates for apprenticeships, interviewers need to customize the interview process to meet the needs of neurodivergent candidates. Companies can embrace this process by:

  • providing clear instructions for locating assessment tools. One way to do that is to enhance instructions with visual cues or icons.
  • Clarifying expectations of the interview process. Lack of clarity causes increased anxiety and undermines a candidate’s ability to prepare appropriately for the interview experience. Let the candidate know what interviewees should expect, the length and format of the interview, and items the candidate should bring. Examples might include portfolios with work samples, a resume copy, pen, notebook, etc.
  • Ensuring the candidate has information about whom they will meet and how to contact them in an emergency.
  • Securing a suitable interview space that is a quiet space devoid of distractions.
  • Ensure that the online application portal is not assessing web page navigation instead of job skills. If the user interface is unfriendly, skilled candidates may be lost; Not because they are not viable, but because they can’t navigate the web portal properly.

In my years as a teacher, I saw this same problem with many test questions and instructions — poor wording of questions and unclear instructions caused students (and me) to misunderstand what was being asked or required.

The failure of the test (or web page) creator was the problem. Not the neurodivergent’s ability and skill.

There are significant benefits for companies that embark on an apprenticeship program. An apprenticeship program allows companies to recruit from a broader, more diverse base of candidates. Companies have the opportunity to train employees to meet the specific requirements of their business. The mindset of the candidate and employer is different than when a person is hired in a traditional interview: It’s expected that training is needed, and growth will take some time. This expectation of necessary training is not always the case in conventional hiring practices. Often, candidates are hired, quickly onboarded, and expected to perform with minimal support or training. This process often fails at a high cost to the employer. Apprenticeships are inherently more successful. Most importantly, employees who start through an apprenticeship program will likely stay and grow with the company.

Resources: resource hub hub (USA)

Cecile. (2020). Improve Apprenticeship Retention Rates — Cognassist. Cognassist Blog.

Datta, N., Krishnamurthy, A., & Mannie, N. (2020). 3 ways to build lasting apprenticeship programs. World Bank Blogs.

Fritsch, S. (2022). Land Your Dream Job Through Volunteering? It Happens More Than You Think. Forbes2.

HM Government. (2020). What are the benefits of hiring an apprentice? Apprenticeships.Gov.Uk.

IBM Newsroom. (2021). IBM Newsroom — Neurodiversity @ IBM. IBM Newsroom2.

Kirby, A. (2021). Apprenticeship and Neurodiversity — recognising intrapreneurship — FE News. FeNews.

Quickfall, C. (2022). Supporting neurodiverse apprentices | Training Journal. Training Journal.

Sanchez-Ruiz, M.-J., Khoury, J. El, Saadé, G., & Salkhanian, M. (2016). Non-Cognitive Variables and Academic Achievement. Non-Cognitive Skills and Factors in Educational Attainment, 65–85.

Williams, A. (2021). (2) Top companies who are engaging their Neurodivergence in 2021 | LinkedIn. LinkedIn.

Copyright © 2022 Susan Fitzell & Aim Hi Educational Programs, LLC.  First published June 25, 2022.


Susan Fitzell, M. Ed, CSP, is a nationally recognized presenter, author of nine books for teachers, trainers, and parents, an educational consultant, and CEO of Aim Hi Educational Programs, LLC. As an independent consultant and coach, Susan offers the personalization, continuity, and consistency necessary for true change in any organization. She works side by side with teachers, school administrators, and business leaders as a coach and trainer, employing Brain Power strategies that take learning to the next level.

For more information, visit Susan's website at

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