Those of us who keep tabs on the tech world hear a lot about the challenges of hiring and retaining IT talent. According to a forecast by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.3 million new computer programming and computer support specialist jobs will be created across the country by 2022, and as businesses across all sectors become more tech-enabled and tech-dependent, that dearth of talent will only get worse.
A number of strategies have been deployed in an attempt to solve this problem—internships, code schools, and industry-led STEM education initiatives, for example—but a Seattle-based apprenticeship program called Apprenti has experienced enough local success that earlier this month, it announced an expansion to California, Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon.
“We have an expensive hiring issue in the tech industry,” says Jennifer Carlson, Apprenti’s executive director. “It hit a tipping point after the downturn [in 2008]. Companies were poaching from everyone, not just other tech companies, and it was clear we had challenges.”
Apprenti was developed in 2016 by the nonprofit Washington Technology Industry Association, with financial support from the U.S. Department of Labor and corporate contributions, to help address the shortage of IT workers as well as the lack of diversity that continues to plague the industry. The program is in expansion mode after a successful yearlong pilot in the state of Washington that drew more than 3,000 applicants and placed dozens of apprentices in good-paying jobs.
Apprenti was designed specifically for the tech industry, Carlson says, with heavy input from its partner hiring companies. The program differs from traditional trade apprenticeships in that it moves much faster and is able to evolve as the industry rapidly changes, she adds. To be considered for the program, applicants must be 18 or older, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and be eligible to work in the U.S. There is no tuition required.
Once an applicant passes the initial screening, they do phone interviews with hiring companies. If selected for an apprenticeship, Apprenti works with the hiring company to determine a specific course of training for that apprentice. Apprentices receive up to 20 weeks of certified classroom training from a third-party provider. Then, they follow it with a year of full-time, paid, on-the-job training from someone already employed in the same position at the hiring company. Carlson says the target is 90 percent retention of apprentices.
“An Apprenti apprenticeship is a job, not the hope for a job,” Carlson says. “The hiring company has to agree to train the person based on a soft skills interview” that looks at culture fit, logic and math aptitude, and emotional intelligence. So far, Apprenti has placed nearly 100 apprentices at companies like Microsoft and Amazon in tech jobs that pay at least $42,000 per year.
According to Carlson, the tech industry’s current talent shortage is partly the result of requiring a four-year college degree for the vast majority of IT positions. Tech internships also don’t work as well as they might in other sectors because, she points out, there is no consistency in the delivery of training and no way to quantify work experience. The intent with Apprenti, she adds, is to make it portable, consistent, and able to move into any market where tech talent is a challenge
“Our thesis is the tech industry can’t look only at higher education to fill roles when they’re already not filling all of their open jobs,” Carlson says. “When we sat down with hiring companies in Seattle, we asked them to look critically at the four-year degree requirement and determine which jobs truly needed one. We discovered many jobs could be filled by a person with a certification for a specific skill.”
Apprenti also “very deliberately” works with local community organizations in each market to recruit women, people of color, military veterans, and other underrepresented people. (Nationally, less than 20 percent of the tech workforce is female, less than 5 percent is people of color, and there are even fewer veterans.) So far, 88 percent of Apprenti’s placements have belonged to one of these underrepresented groups, Carlson says.
“The tech workforce is not reflective of the larger population, and the industry is acutely aware of it,” she says. “We feel we can bridge that gap by working directly with community organizations, focusing on those populations, and doing orientation sessions to explain how it works.”
In Michigan, Apprenti’s local partner is the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN), a partnership of 10 community colleges and six Michigan Works offices in metro Detroit. Its mission is “to cultivate a comprehensive and cohesive talent system to ensure employers find the workers they need for success.”
David Palmer, WIN’s director of business partnerships, says Michiganders have a unique opportunity “to be on the front end of the convergence of automotive, IT, communications, and the Internet of Things. If we want to maintain our advantage in the automotive sector moving forward, we need to understand that the connected car will be more of a user interface than a traditional vehicle.”
Apprenti, Palmer says, could have a vital role in shifting the supply curve of the local labor market. People think of Michigan as being a bastion of manufacturing jobs, but the top workforce demand is currently software developers. On any given day, he adds, there are roughly 1,000 open IT jobs in Detroit alone, and 10,000 open statewide.
“Whether it’s a small IT shop or one with hundreds of employees, we’re ready and willing to discuss apprenticeship programs in their organization,” Palmer says. “Apprenti aligns expectations between employers and employees, and is a tremendous opportunity to lock down IT as a permanent sector in Detroit.”