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How Apprenticeships Can Bridge Tech’s Talent Gap

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

Imagine you’re a veteran interested in getting your foot in the door of the booming tech industry. Maybe you don’t have to imagine.

You’ll first need to obtain a four-year degree, a minimum requirement for most tech positions, with the help of your G.I. Bill education benefits. Only to make those funds last four years, you’ll likely have to forego the most prestigious private or public universities in favor of more affordable alternatives. The same is often true for minorities entering tech, who tend to be less wealthy than their white counterparts.

Finally, once graduated, you’ll still have to land an entry-level job. That may be difficult given that tech companies focus on recruiting from only the top 50-70% of universities, which might not include the one you had to attend.

They’re a fully capable and qualified workforce,” explains Jennifer Carlson, Executive Director of Apprenti, “but they’re not in our direct line of sight, so they get overlooked.”

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Photos: WTIA

Carlson is the director of the Washington Technology Industry Association’s (WTIA) fledgling but fast-growing Apprenti program, which aims to connect those overlooked would-be tech workers with the job opportunities they seek by repurposing an old-fashioned tradition—apprenticeship.

The nation’s first registered tech apprenticeship program, Apprenti was borne of the WTIA’s efforts to bridge what’s usually referred to as tech’s talent gap, or the growing disparity between the number of tech positions available and the number of qualified candidates to fill those roles.

We’re creating jobs at an exponentially faster pace than we can get talent out of colleges,” says Carlson. “If you look at the number of degrees conferred in engineering and computer-science combined, we’re conferring fewer than 200,000 four-year degrees across the country to fill almost 2 million job openings.”

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In 2014, Carlson wrote a WTIA business plan to tackle the root causes of the talent gap by developing a new workforce to supplement the current one—“apprenticeship without the word apprenticeship,” she says.

Serendipitously, the US Department of Labor (DOL) was at the same time giving out grants to try out apprenticeship in nontraditional sectors. The WTIA and state of Washington partnered to apply, then won the grant to create Apprenti in 2015.

The organization has always—if not exclusively—focused on underrepresented populations in the infamously un-diverse tech industry; namely veterans, women, and minorities. Starting out, they sought to identify and refer potential apprentices in these groups by reaching out and partnering with local resources that serve them, such as Goodwill or the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

It was even easier building out a stable of hiring partners to place candidates in paid apprenticeships, given WTIA’s direct access to 800 member companies, including prominent Apprenti partners like F5 Networks, Amazon, and Microsoft. Developing the apprenticeship program alongside these company partners meant making them look differently at their hiring needs, beginning with the uniform requirement of a four-year college degree.

When we talked with really large hiring partners, we asked how many of these jobs have to have that degree,” Carlson says. “The answer pretty consistently across the board was 40%.”

The remaining 60% of opportunities, on the other hand, could be capably filled by non-college-educated candidates with enough foreknowledge of their job duties, which Apprenti provides in the form of industry-recognized certification courses and hands-on training with the company.

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So what does Apprenti look for when selecting tech newcomers to place in apprenticeships, if not college education? As dictated by industry demands, their three primary areas of focus are algebraic math skills, logic and critical thinking, and emotional intelligence, all of which they test for in the competency assessment that kicks off their selection process.

From there, those who don’t pass the assessment are referred to local resources to help them train up. Those who do are interviewed over-the-phone and in-person by Apprenti before being referred to hiring partners who assess soft skills like communication and adaptability based on past employment experience.

The candidates chosen by the company must complete two to five months of relevant technical training, with Apprenti covering certification costs often exceeding $15,000. Then, they’re placed in a one-year apprenticeship—the minimum term for one under US law—where they’ll learn the position under an assigned supervisor (or mentor) while earning 60-70% of that position’s standard salary.

This system stands in stark contrast to the more common internship model, a common point of comparison. Unlike apprenticeships, most internships last only three to six months and must be arranged through universities, with no external oversight to ensure the (often unpaid) positions are imparting useful skills.

We’ve spent time to build the job taxonomy for each occupation, so that 80% of the job looks the same whether you’re at, say, Microsoft or Primera Healthcare,” Carlson explains. “This way, you know what a person is capable of at the end of a term, and it’s a portable job skill across state- and industry-lines.”

Operating since September 2016, Apprenti has already proven itself an unequivocal success, receiving more than 4,500 applications and placing more than 100 in apprenticeships in its first year. In 2018, they anticipate placing at least another 400. They’ve already expanded beyond Seattle to locations in Michigan; Northern California; Herndon, Virg.; and Bend and Eugene, Ore.

What’s more, they’ve identified another 10 additional cities to partner with as their model continues to scale, thanks a DOL ApprenticeshipUSA contract they won in 2016 worth $7.5 million. The expansion puts Apprenti squarely at the center of a nationally-unified apprenticeship program, which might be just what tech needs to keep growing.

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