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Four Innovators Defining Creative Pathways for Workers to Earn While They Learn

March 14, 2024

At a Glance

Profiles of two startups, a nonprofit service organization, and a renowned university that set the standard for earn-and-learn training by breaking new ground or building on track records of success. 

Practices & Centers

A wave of evolution throughout the economy over the past two decades has reshaped the landscape of work and redefined the dynamics of the labor market.  

Because of the lightning pace of technological advances, employers often have difficulty finding people to fill jobs that require state-of-the-art skills. And to acquire the new skills employers are seeking, workers must continually pursue costly training and education opportunities, which may mean taking on new student loan debt. At the same time, the labor supply is limited because many workers from populations that have been underserved by public and private systems and institutions face barriers that limit their access to quality education and employment opportunities.  

Earn-and-learn training programs represent an effective way to address all of those challenges. They offer the dual benefit of enabling employers to fulfill their talent needs in-house by upskilling current employees while giving workers opportunities to acquire new skills without forgoing a paycheck. However, they still pose hurdles for both workers and employers because they can be costly to implement, and time constraints may limit workers’ ability to participate in them. 

To understand the challenges and opportunities for both employers and workers, Jobs for the Future (JFF) conducted an in-depth scan of the earn-and-learn ecosystem. After analyzing more than 1,000 companies and organizations, we identified more than 100 high-quality earn-and-learn programs based on models that have the potential to connect workers to learning and development opportunities at scale. 

We divided the most promising programs into two categories: Innovators and Exemplars.  

The Innovators are venture-backed startups that are pioneering new ways to use technology to advance workforce development. The Exemplars are programs launched by nonprofits, educational institutions, and public-sector initiatives. 

This blog features profiles of two of the Innovators—Symba and BuildWithin, both of which are women-owned companies—and two Exemplars—CityYear Denver and Northeastern University’s Cooperative Education program. 



Symba Cofounder and CEO Ahva Sadeghi thinks her company can be a catalyst of economic empowerment by expanding access to internship opportunities.

In a blog post on the Symba website, Sadeghi said she had six internships while she was in college, and in each one she noticed that the cohorts of participants lacked racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. A first-generation Iranian American woman, she said she found that troubling because internships are building blocks of career success, and a lack of diversity in internships leads to lack of diversity in the workforce.  

Then, while serving as one of the first remote interns with the U.S. State Department, she realized that programs with remote working arrangements could attract students from a wider range of backgrounds because they’d be more easily accessible and wouldn’t require participants to move to cities with high costs of living.   

In 2017, during a fellowship in the office of the late Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, she launched Symba as an action project to foster equitable access to the workforce by making remote work-based learning experiences more common.   

Shortly thereafter, Sadeghi teamed up with Symba’s cofounder and current CTO, Nikita Gupta, and together they developed a technology platform that employers can use to manage all aspects of internship and apprenticeship programs, including onboarding and project assignments, communication and feedback, and performance monitoring. Organizations can also use it to track the demographics of program participants.  

Named for the symbiotic relationship it fosters between employers and students and early career talent, the Symba platform is designed to improve the experience of both participating in and running a remote internship or other work-based learning program. 

Programs that use Symba’s platform have served about 20,000 workers since 2017. Sadeghi says the company plans to expand in order to reach more people and has recently moved into new markets, including insurance and manufacturing.  

The challenge now is to make more employers aware of Symba’s potential. “What we have to do now as entrepreneurs in this space is very clearly identify the business impact and ROI,” Sadeghi said. “Gone are the days of selling a ‘nice to have’ solution. We have to lean into how we drive business impact that people can see: metrics, dashboards, and quarterly business reviews. You cannot be idle anymore.”  

Learn More About Symba  


Driven by the mantra of “Potential Over Credential,” BuildWithin offers software tools that employers can use to launch and scale apprenticeship programs, onboard new hires, and offer work-based learning experiences to all employees.

Driven by the mantra of “Potential Over Credential,” BuildWithin offers software tools that employers can use to launch and scale apprenticeship programs, onboard new hires, and offer work-based learning experiences to all employees.  

Founded in 2021 by Michelle Rhee, a former chancellor of the Washington, DC, public school system, and tech entrepreneur Ximena Hartstock, BuildWithin developed its apprenticeship management tools out of necessity.  

The team ran a tech startup for several years but had trouble finding workers with the skills they needed, so they started an apprenticeship program to grow their own talent. After successfully staffing 30% of their workforce through the apprenticeship, the team recognized that the platform they built would appeal to a wide range of employers, so they launched BuildWithin.   

Employers pay a license fee to gain access to BuildWithin’s software-as-a-service platform, which enables them to operate Registered Apprenticeship programs that meet U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) guidelines or in-house work-based learning programs. Among other things, the platform streamlines DOL paperwork tasks and modernizes the hiring process with tools to assess candidates’ interests and skills. 

By the first quarter of 2022, 2000 workers had completed apprenticeships or pre-apprenticeships offered by providers who used BuildWithin’s platform, and 100% moved into full-time jobs upon completion. Moreover, the company reported 1000% revenue growth in the first three quarters of 2022. 

To sustain its success and growth, BuildWithin must expand its market by educating both learners and businesses about the benefits of apprenticeships. And as a tech startup, BuildWithin is navigating some industry-specific challenges, including data storage risks, regulatory requirements, and the costs associated with platform development and maintenance.  

In addition to offering a software platform, BuildWithin has launched an apprenticeship development initiative. With a $7.9 million DOL Apprenticeship Building America grant, BuildWithin is working to expand and modernize apprenticeships in Northern Virginia, Washington, DC, Southern California, and Tennessee. 

Learn More About BuildWithin   


City Year Denver

City Year Denver, one of 29 City Year sites nationwide, offers young adults a rich learning experience and provides clear benefits to the community.

Established in 1988 and now aligned with AmeriCorps, City Year recruits 18-to-25-year-olds to work at public schools in communities that have limited funding and lack access to other resources. Participants gain hands-on experience working in K-12 classrooms. Their responsibilities—which include leading school programs, tutoring and mentoring students, and supporting classroom instruction—prepare them to succeed in future career pursuits, whether they remain in education or move into another field. 

“Half of City Year alumni go on and do many different things, from law to medicine to tech to corporate. The other half end up in the education or social sector working for nonprofits, or as counselors or social workers,” said John Albright, senior vice president and executive director for City Year Denver. 

Boasting nearly 40,000 alumni nationally, City Year programs provide significant education funding, offering participants the flexibility to pay off student debt, pursue further education, or work toward a teaching certification. Moreover, the Life After City Year program offers mentoring services, networking opportunities, and career navigation workshops. 

In Denver, City Year AmeriCorps participants commit to working 1,700 hours over the course of 10 months They earn stipends of $2,000 per month, receive relocation allowances of $500 (pre-tax), and have access to wraparound supports like health care and career counseling services. They’re also eligible to receive an education award of $6,895.  

Moreover, City Year Denver participants who have bachelor’s degrees can enter a teaching fellowship. Offered in partnership with Denver’s Regis University, the fellowship leads to a teaching certificate and credit toward a master’s degree.  

Roughly 75 AmeriCorps members serve more than 6,000 students in the City Year Denver program each year, and according to Albright, the teaching fellowship is a key element of the program’s recruiting strategy—and it also helps address a local teacher shortage. “We’ve produced 15 licensed teachers in the past three years,” he said, adding that at least 20% of Denver Public Schools classrooms might not be staffed without the program.   

City Year Denver is committed to inclusivity and actively works to recruit diverse cohorts of participants, with a specific emphasis on reaching out to people of color and people from the Denver area who don’t have a college degree. 

However, several barriers limit the program’s efforts to diversify. The $2,000 monthly stipend doesn’t go far in one of the country’s most expensive cities, and the absence of housing support compounds the problem. In addition, City Year doesn’t offer loans or grants to supplement the stipend. City Year is trying to address these issues in part by developing certification pathways for participants, like the teaching fellowship. 

Learn More About City Year Denver 

Northeastern University Co-Op Program

Northeastern University’s Cooperative Education program boasts a rich history of more than 100 years as a pioneering force in postsecondary experiential learning. The Boston-based school’s program is based on a distinctive model that allows students to alternate academic semesters with full-time paid work assignments with Northeastern's extensive network of employer partners. Roughly 6,000 students participate in a co-op each semester.

One key to the program’s longevity is its ability to adapt to changes in the labor market and the economy.  

Recently, that has meant adjusting to changes brought on by the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI). Diane Ciarletta, director of career design at Northeastern, is planning an employer focus group to find out what business leaders think of AI and learn whether and how they’re using the technology to evaluate candidates’ resumes, among other things. For its part, Northeastern recently invested in an AI software tool that helps students tailor their resumes to fit specific job opportunities.  

“We gather data from employers to help inform how we teach students and best practices and what is ethical. It’s the Wild West, so we’re doing our best to stay ahead of the game,” said Ciarletta. 

With a century-long head start, Northeastern’s co-op program outshines the offerings of many other organizations JFF reviewed in its scan of the earn-and-learn market. Well-established and well-funded, the program benefits from a robust network of employer and industry partnerships. Northeastern currently collaborates with nearly 3,200 companies globally, making it possible to offer students opportunities to gain experience in a wide array of industries and professions.  

The program also connects students to a vast alumni network and provides comprehensive career-preparation services and other supports, including academic advising services, career skills courses that include mock interviews, and lifelong career services. More than 90% of Northeastern co-op students secure full-time jobs or enroll in graduate school within nine months of graduation. 

However, as many benefits as Northeastern’s co-op program offers, it’s inaccessible for large numbers of people because it’s part of a full-time degree program at a private university. And while some scholarships are available, co-op options may be limited even for Northeastern students because, while the university encourages co-op employers to pay fair wages, it doesn’t mandate that they provide housing or offer stipends to cover living expenses, which may deter some students from accepting co-op placements in cities with high costs of living.  

“Our co-op program has worked to provide housing support to students who might all be participating in a co-op together and can match up for shared housing,” said Ciarletta. “We’ve also entered into partnerships for housing to help students. Sometimes employers will offer relocation assistance and a housing subsidy. We use several creative strategies to support students, especially in our major employer markets like New York, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, DC, and even [international locations].”  

Learn More About Northeastern’s Co-Op Program  

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