Randall Darden, a four-year IT professional working for Accenture in Minneapolis, didn't take the often-required step of getting a four-year degree.

Darden, 32, a Minneapolis Washburn High graduate, ran into financial difficulties and dropped out of college, supporting himself with low-wage retail and janitorial jobs.

Yet, he had interest and aptitude for technology. He jumped at the chance to join the business consulting firm as part of an apprentice program Accenture started in 2016.

"The apprenticeship changed my life," Darden said last week. "I'm making a good living. I have plans to finish my computer science degree. I was surrounded here by folks who helped me grow in my career. It's been great for me and my family. I've earned promotions."

Christy Sovereign, who leads Accenture in the Twin Cities, plans to expand the number of apprentices from 12 to 100, equal to that of the Chicago headquarters.

Accenture first scaled up the apprenticeship program in concert with several other Chicago-area businesses as a promising way to diversify their workforces with bright employees who didn't make it through college.

"The Chicago story for us busted this bias that you need a four-year degree to do well at Accenture," Sovereign said last week. "We're also seeing that in Minneapolis. We want a workforce that's representative of the population at large. And two-thirds of the apprentices are from underrepresented groups."

Locally, Accenture has joined with Chicago-based insurer Aon, and Greater MSP, the Twin Cities business-development agency to launch the Minnesota Apprenticeship Network, with an initial goal of 1,000 apprentices.

"The apprenticeship program will create new opportunities and professional networks for both apprentices and participating employers," Greg Case, CEO of Aon, said in a statement this month.

"This is an innovative — and inclusive — way for employers to attract and retain diverse talent, prepare future leaders and contribute to building a more diverse, resilient workforce," Case said.

The stepped-up corporate effort is in partnership with the OneTen Coalition, a group of executives including several from Twin Cities-based companies, who have pledged to "up-skill, hire and advance 1 million Black individuals in America over the next 10 years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement."

The impetus was accelerated by last year's killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests and calls for business to do more to ensure that people who are underrepresented in traditional career networks get more opportunity.

Apprenticeships long have been used in the building trades and some manufacturing careers, but far less so in white-collar jobs.

Workforce experts, noting the looming generational job shortages in technology, business services, health care and more, say apprenticeships that involve on-the-job training are a valuable path to middle class prosperity.

Participating Twin Cities employers met earlier this month with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a champion of the apprenticeship model who has sponsored supportive legislation.

"Creating and expanding opportunities to empower communities and individuals goes hand in hand with advancing racial equity," Klobuchar said. "Employer-led apprenticeship programs recognize that while employers have an urgent need for skilled talent, they need to lead from the front to create demand for employees from all communities."

The emerging model centers on a 12-month apprenticeship that leads to a job. That is coupled with completion of a two-year degree at a community college or training at nonprofit groups or community-based tech academies.

The apprentices also have on-the-job mentors who help guide them into careers that range from IT to risk management, underwriting, human resources, finance and otherwise.

Ray Battle, an African American executive for Aon in the Twin Cities, grew up on the south side of Chicago. A graduate of Augustana College in Illinois in math and computer science, he benefited from a mentor in his first job and "things just clicked."

"I would like to see from this apprenticeship program more people of color exposed to this wonderful industry," Battle said. "It's giving people an opportunity to be their authentic selves and not to be just defined by a degree. And exposing people to careers they may not know about."