Tech & Work

Can apprenticeships help diversify the tech industry?

The Obama Administration is expanding grant funding for tech apprenticeship programs. Here's how your company can benefit.

Apprenticeship programs date back to the Middle Ages, but the tech industry is now giving this model a fresh look to fill talent gaps and diversify workforces.

"Apprenticeships are a great opportunity to help build a well-qualified workforce, whose skills are customized to the exact needs of an employer," said Angela Hanks, associate director of workforce development policy at the Center for American Progress.

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A majority of apprenticeships remain in the building and construction trades, Hanks said. "But as part of this new effort to increase the number of apprenticeships in the country, a lot of the focus has been on expanding the model into new industries, including IT, healthcare, manufacturing, and energy," she said.

Nearly 40% of tech jobs do not require a four-year degree, according to the Department of Labor. The average salary for a person who completes an apprenticeship in any field is $50,000, the DOL stated.

In recent years, policymakers in congress and the Obama Administration have started exploring the model as a way to train and hire people for 21st-century jobs. In June, the Department of Labor announced $150 million in grants for 39 TechHire partnerships nationwide as an "innovative training and placement model to develop tech talent," with a focus on engaging at-risk youth.

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"The focus has been trying to figure out how to take this model that's been so successful in the building trades, and expand it to new industries and populations," Hanks said.

Apprenticeship benefits include work-based learning, which research demonstrates is more effective than classroom learning for gaining skills, Hanks said. They also usually allow participants to earn a wage without taking on debt.

For employers, the benefit is teaching a worker the specific skills needed for a job. "It's customized training—you know what you're getting, and you can make sure people are getting trained with the skills and credentials you're looking for as an employer," Hanks said.

Read on to learn how three programs are connecting apprentices with tech jobs, and for advice on how your company can get started.

Expanding from four-year computer science degrees: LaunchCode

The St. Louis-based nonprofit LaunchCode was created by Square co-founder Jim McKelvey in 2013, to build a pipeline of nontraditional tech talent with apprenticeships.

"We found ourselves in a world where tech companies were set on hiring four-year traditional computer science graduates," said Mark Bauer, executive director of LaunchCode. "The apprenticeship allows us to have a conversation with that company and convince them to bring on somebody in an apprenticeship role."

LaunchCode partners with more than 500 companies nationwide. Since 2013, it has placed more than 480 apprentices—and 90% go on to take jobs with the company they are placed with, Bauer said.

The companies pay the apprentices at varying rates, though $15/hour is standard, Bauer said. "Allowing an apprentice to prove themselves over 90 days for about $15 an hour is a palatable equation for them to recognize that you can get some great talent without a four year computer science degree," he said.

Of the 480 apprentices, 220 were previously unemployed, and more than 100 were working in low wage jobs, Bauer said. "It's just been amazing in terms of economic opportunity for both the individual and the community," he said. "The average person we work with more than doubles their salary from the time they find us to the time they get placed in a tech job."

The program is free for apprentices, who can also access free online LaunchCode classes. Applicants are asked to solve three coding puzzles, and a number are invited for an interview. LaunchCode also makes sure they have a resume, interview skills, and can do basic live coding.

To fill needed high-skill tech positions, technology leaders must change their thinking on hiring, and be more open to people from nontraditional backgrounds, Bauer said. "There's no question that there's growth with regard to the need for tech talent," Bauer said. "Over 1 million tech jobs need to be filled by 2020. The number continues to grow, and the acceptance of the apprenticeship model continues to grow."

Encouraging women: Ada Developers Academy

To give more women access to high-paying tech jobs, the Ada Developers Academy offers a tuition-free training and apprenticeship program targeted to women and people with non-binary gender who do not have a computer science background.

The Seattle-based program, founded in 2013, involves six months of classroom work, and a five-month paid internship. Of the 82 graduates, 80 currently have full-time jobs, according to executive director Cynthia Tee.

Applicants span all age ranges and careers, including teaching, library science, linguistics, and the arts. "It's women from so many different backgrounds who have a strong interest in this field, and making this career change," Tee said. "Ada is about supporting them through this career transition, as opposed to being just a training program."

Ada typically receives about 200 applicants per cycle, and selects 48 per cohort. Applicants first perform a problem-solving question, and answer personal essay questions about their career goals and motivations. From there, a number are selected for a coding challenge and in-person interview.

Companies including Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, Zillow, and Redfin offer internships to Ada students, and pay minimum wage. "Companies have been very supportive of us," Tee said. "Fortunately, we now have a bright shining light on diversity and inclusion. There are a lot of companies that care about diversifying their workforce."

About 70% are offered a full-time position in the company they intern with, and about half accept it, Tee said. "Given our track record for graduating and placing all of our students, there's enough proof that this model for addressing a diversity pipeline works," Tee said.

Other Seattle training companies aiming to increase diversity in tech include Year Up, Unloop, and Floodgate Academy, Tee said.

A state investment: Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee

Facing a lack of aerospace workers, in 2008 Washington State funded the creation of the nonprofit Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) to pair on-the-job training with classroom instruction for students from different backgrounds.

"The current state of the apprenticeship is aligning more with European models, which emphasized starting an apprenticeship at a much younger age," said Aaron Ferrell, marketing communications manager at AJAC. "We are seeing more programs in new high-demand occupations including nursing, IT, aerospace, and advanced manufacturing."

AJAC offers six apprenticeship tracks for the aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries, including machining, precision metal fabrication, tool and die making, and technicians for aircraft maintenance, industrial maintenance, and plastic process.

Women and minorities are the largest untapped resource when it comes to having a diversified and skilled workforce, particularly for the aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries, Ferrell said. AJAC visits classrooms and job fairs to reach out to underserved populations, and encourage women and minorities to apply, he added.

AJAC's programs cost between $2,000 and $4,000 for apprentices, which covers their tuition and textbooks. But about two-thirds of AJAC's employers reimburse the apprentices for the cost of the college-level portion of the program, Ferrell said. Most apprentices start making between $13-20/hour, depending on the region and the field, and graduate the program making $20-35/hour.

"Regardless of the technology that is driving new growth and innovations, these industries rely heavily on highly-skilled labor," Ferrell said. "With apprenticeship, we truly capture the transfer of knowledge from seasoned worker to the apprentice."

Advice for starting an apprenticeship program

One of the largest barriers for apprenticeship programs is making tech companies aware that they are an option, Hanks of the Center for American Progress said. She recommends getting in touch with a training provider or nonprofit that might already know how to develop programming and recruit apprentices for help. Companies can also look to the Department of Labor for resources and tips on registering an apprentice program, Hanks said.

"The biggest challenge is that it's so new for IT," Hanks said. "There is a question about how to maintain high quality, and make sure the wages are good."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Apprenticeship programs, typically found in construction and building, are growing in the tech industry thanks in part to federal grants as a way to tap nontraditional talent, fill jobs, and diversify the tech workforce.
  2. Programs including LaunchCode and Ada Developers Academy match applicants with paid apprenticeship programs at tech companies, the majority of which are offered full time jobs at those companies.
  3. Tech leaders interested in starting an apprenticeship program at their company can seek out partnerships with training programs, community colleges, and nonprofits for help developing a program and recruiting apprentices. They can also look to the Department of Labor for resources.

Also see

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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