Updated Thursday at 9:20 p.m.

Former Mayor Marty Walsh touted millions in U.S. Labor Department grants that will be used to beef up apprenticeships and entry-level job opportunities in life sciences and other growth industries in Greater Boston.

Walsh, now the U.S. Labor Secretary, urged employers to reach out to workers of color and people without a clear pathway to college.

“There was a big push in this country for probably 25 years [to] go to college ... and we lost a lot of ability in construction and other places where people didn’t go. Now we’re paying the price for that,” Walsh said Wednesday at a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “We see apprenticeship as an opportunity to do both.”

The Labor Department grants could help Boston close its racial wealth gap, a persistent problem for the city, he said. The median net worth of a white family is $247,500, while the median net worth of a Black family is just $8, according to a 2015 analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the racial wealth gap across the country that has already been widening for the past 50 years; median family wealth for white people is about four times that of Latino or Hispanic people and three times that of Black people, with race and socioeconomic status playing a key role in upward mobility, according to new data from the Brookings Institution.

Boston is experiencing an “explosion of growth” in job creation, with around 41 million square feet of life science space in the city so far and an estimated additional 23 million square feet expected to be built in the next two years, creating an additional 40,000 new jobs for the city, according to Massachusetts Life Sciences Center President and CEO Kenneth Turner.

“When I’m talking to my colleagues in the private sector, to [pharmaceutical companies] Takeda, Sanofi or BMS or whomever it is, they all recognize that we've got to think really differently about our talent pool,” Turner said. “This is a chance for us to change the complexion of the life science workforce. How about we reach out to neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester or Mattapan? What about Gateway Cities like Lawrence or Lowell? This is the new trade.”

Boston finds itself in a bustling period of job creation, at least in the life sciences sector, with no workforce to fill those jobs, Bunker Hill Community College President Eddinger said.

“In terms of what students are expecting, they have every right to expect that if they come and train with us, that they should have a job. That should be our promise,” Eddinger said. “The question would be, what will it take to get a student in the door by paying them enough or supporting them enough so they can come out on the other end to meet the jobs that are being created?”

The $8 million in funding for Greater Boston, part of a national grant program distributing $121 million nationwide, will be split between $3 million for the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation of Boston, an umbrella organization that funds local employment and housing stability organizations, and the group Jobs for the Future, which will receive $5 million for workforce development.

The funds will go to individual organizations working in a variety of fields, including an emergency medical technician program in partnership with the city and Bunker Hill Community College, according to Eddinger.

“It’s already happening,” Eddinger said. “It’s in play right now.”

Funds were awarded in four categories: building state apprenticeship programs, ensuring equity in pathways to apprenticeship programs, expanding existing programs for young people and creating “hubs” to fill jobs in “fast-growing industries and occupations,” according to a press release from the Department of Labor.

The pathways to job opportunities are marred with disadvantages for people of color, resulting in racial inequity in hiring and pay in the economy, according to Brookings. “Systemic racism is built into our economy and is antithetical to a society where everyone should have an equal shot at economic mobility,” researchers wrote in a recent essay that cites systemic barriers, such as underfunded schools staffed by less experienced teachers.

“We have to think about stable and affordable mass transit, about great schools, about housing prices,” Turner said. “We tend to think of these things in isolation, and we have conversations about the pieces, but I think we’ve got to have the political vision to think more holistically about how we’re going to get this workforce ready through the whole package, including congestion, transportation, affordable housing. We have to be more comprehensive.”

Employers have a responsibility to review and change work environments to become friendlier to people of color and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, said Karilyn Crockett, Professor of Urban History, Public Policy, and Planning at MIT, Chamber consultant, and Boston’s former Chief of Equity.

“A good job alone will not close the racial wealth gap, but inequities at work dramatically contribute to the wealth divide,” Crockett said. “We are in a moment of making a new commitment in terms of how we think about investing in workers at every career stage.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Crockett’s current job title.