With financial backing from the U.S. Department of Labor, a tech apprenticeship program in Washington State is being expanded nationwide to recruit, train and place workers to help close the technology skills gap, with a focus on under-represented groups to help close the diversity gap that characterizes the IT sector.
In an announcement last week, the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) said it had been awarded $7.5 million by the Labor Department for a nationwide expansion of its Apprenti apprenticeship program. I had the opportunity to discuss the announcement with Jennifer Carlson, executive director of the WTIA Workforce Institute, and I opened the conversation by mentioning that I had recently spoken with Rachel McGalliard of the Software Guild, which has adopted an apprenticeship model for its software coding boot camps. I asked Carlson for her thoughts on what’s driving this focus on the apprenticeship model to fill the technology skills gap. She said from an employer’s standpoint, it comes down to a combination of factors:
You don’t have enough college graduates coming out to fill the occupations, and we’ve been very four-year-college-degree focused in our hiring for so many years. So we’re going to have to look outside of the traditional scope. Then, how do we best train them? Because not everybody comes through that traditional model. If we can identify highly competent people, as opposed to using college as a benchmark for determining competency, then companies are ready to start making the investment in training homegrown talent, and getting them up to a proficiency level that works for their business.
And apprenticeship has a lot of rigor around it. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Labor and Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries, as we got this started, were both very flexible in allowing us to take the best practices of the trades, but still adapt it to our industry in a way that maintains the rigor of getting the person up to speed, but under an adaptive model so that it works for our industry.
According to the announcement, Apprenti will form a National Registered Tech Apprenticeship Committee with representatives from top companies that will be committed to hiring apprentices through the program, to lay the foundation for an employer-driven model. I asked Carlson if these companies were the ones paying the apprentices, or if that’s what the Department of Labor funding is for. She said the $7.5 million over five years covers infrastructure and start-up costs:
The salaries are paid by the companies. It’s an apprenticed salary, so it is not a full wage of a qualified person coming into the job. So there’s some cost saving for the year that the person is learning on the job that the company gets as a benefit, while it makes the human-capital investment of training the person for that year that they’re on the job and learning it. But in return, the people taking the apprenticeship get a full-time paid job, with benefits, and have an immersive environment where they’re really focusing on learning one occupation at a high level of proficiency.
The program specifically targets underrepresented groups — women, minorities and veterans. Carlson explained the approach to make that happen:
What we did here [in Washington State], as a pilot, was we partnered in the marketplace with community organizations, community colleges, groups that focus their services around those three target populations. We did a soft rollout — we didn’t roll it out to the public and do a mass announcement until just a couple of weeks ago. We actually gave it exclusively to those community partners a month earlier, so that we were filling the pipeline upfront with the people that we absolutely knew are the ones we wanted to place into these occupations.
So whether that was Goodwill, Urban League, Tacoma Community House — all these local groups, and then several community colleges that had curricula that would match up well with what we were looking for — those are the groups that were filling the pipeline, along with several of the work force development councils in the area.
In the pipeline — people who have actually come in to the assessment portal — we have 422 as of [Sept. 29], here in the pilot in Washington [State]; 202 are women; 74 are veterans; and 218 are minorities. Obviously there’s some overlap in there.
The idea is for the program is to provide these folks with two to four months of certified technical training, followed by one year of full-time, paid, on-the-job training with one of Apprenti’s hiring partners. Carlson said the apprentice is under no obligation or commitment to continue working for that company:
Both parties have a one-year obligation to make the environment a good training environment. But they’re an at-will employee of the company, and at the end of that term the company will give them an annual review, like they would any other employee.
Our recommendation to the company is that if they want to retain the person at that point, they need to get him or her to the industry-standard wage. Because now they’ve got a full year with a named company on their resume, along with an industry-recognized certification. Our marketplace dictates that they will likely have an easier time finding a job now, so if you want to retain them, get them to market wage. If not, they’re at will to separate, on either side.
There are five initial Apprenti occupations: database administrator, network security administrator, project manager, software developer and web developer. I asked Carlson which of these skills are in greatest demand, and she said the developer jobs are the ones that employers are most eager to fill:
They’re also the most technical of the jobs, which is why we wanted to create multiple pathways, and provide other opportunities. That is only the starting set — that is what we filed in Washington [State], and what we will likely look to our national council to ratify quickly so that we can start filing those in other states, as well. But we’ve also got requests coming in for UI/UX, quality assurance, data analysis — so we have a number of other positions that are already teed up in the pipeline.
The key is to create multiple inroads and opportunities. We have some people who are less technical, that have great social skills, and could make great project managers. And then we’ve got some folks who are exceptionally good at math, and are highly analytical in problem-solving, who will make great programmers.
Carlson wrapped up the conversation with some praise for the Labor Department:
I want to give a quick shout-out to the Department of Labor for their support in this, but really more specifically for their vision and flexibility in allowing us to take an existing model that has such a rich history in this country with the trades, and adapt it without forcing a round peg into a square hole. They’ve worked really closely with us in making sure that this is a model that will be embraced by industry.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.