Microsoft and IBM use apprentice programs to diversify the tech world and solve the labor shortage

Apprenti works with tech companies in 15 states to expand the pipeline of software engineers, cloud administrators and data analysts.

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Image: IQoncept/istock

Tech leaders who want to fill open jobs and hit diversity goals should test a new hiring strategy: apprenticeship programs. Companies that start hiring people based on skill sets instead of specific education or work history requirements can accomplish both goals. 

Jennifer Carlson, executive director of the Washington Technology Industry Association Workforce Institute and the Apprenti program, said the goal for apprenticeship is to open the aperture on the tech talent pool. "Apprenticeship needs a coalition of the willing to look beyond traditional hiring standards and accept that people can be retrained at any age to take these jobs," she said.

Carlson and her team build training programs based on the types of roles companies are looking to fill. Each student in a class is sponsored by a company that pledges to hire the individual as an apprentice for a year, once the training program is complete. The training is not always paid, but the apprentice gets full wages and benefits once he or she is hired on. 

"There are some employers electing to pay people while they are in the classroom with a salary or a stipend," Carlson said. Apprenti trains people for 14 tech jobs with 40% in software development and 22% in cloud administration. Business analysts and cyber analysts are also in-demand roles.

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"There are many jobs in tech that are not entry level that can be done by people with high aptitude without concern for degree attainment," she said. 

Carlson also said the current hiring strategy for tech companies is to poach employees from each other which leads to a significant growth in cost each time a person switches employers. "I recommend that HR managers do a five-year regression analysis to understand the growth year over year in salaries," she said. 

Carslon said that companies need to think about relevant skill sets instead of hiring requirements to open up the hiring process to more candidates.

"That is probably the most meaningful change and also the most difficult for an HR department to go through the process of identifying roles that can be hired alternately," she said.

Ninety-three percent of the people in the Apprenti program go from the classroom to a job, she said. Apprenti works with employers in 16 states across the country.

Companies are looking for training programs that scale and can provide a systemic solution, not just a Band-Aid, she said. 

Carlson noticed a change in the motivations driving companies to try the apprenticeship model. "Last year, it became really clear, because of economic disparities called out during Black Lives Matter protests, that there are barriers to entry and systemic bias," she said.

Carlson said Apprenti helps companies address diversity issues and creates an alternative hiring pipeline that doesn't rely on a few computer science universities.  

Apprenti doesn't collect educational attainment information when a student enrolls. Eighty-four percent of enrollees are people of color, women, veterans and people with disabilities.  Fifty-four percent have a college degree.

In talking with employers about why a college degree is important, Carlson discovered that employers believed that having a degree showed that a person knows how to learn.

"If that's what you say you want the person with the degree for, the person who worked full-time while getting a degree is equally, or even more valuable, in flexibility and the ability to learn," she said. 

The apprenticeship lasts for 2,000 hours of work or one year with the company. At that time the sponsoring company makes a decision about whether to hire the individual as a full-time employee. Carlson discovered during the hiring process for one company that female apprentices were getting hired on for $5,000 less than male apprentices. 

"When we pointed that out, they went back and fixed it," she said.

Apprenticeships for developers and more at Microsoft and IBM

Microsoft Leap Apprenticeship Program started in 2015 with the idea of modernizing the company's approach to recruiting engineers. Participants choose a pathway before starting the program:

  • Business program manager
  • Customer service engineer
  • Data analyst
  • Software engineer
  • Software support engineer
  • Technical program manager
  • User experience designer

Several tracks are available only to cohorts in Redmond, Washington, but the software engineer pathway is available in five other cities including Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya. The 16-week program starts with four weeks of classroom training. Next, participants get a mentor and an assignment to a project team or a group developing a new feature. 

Participants have included a retired airline pilot, a stay-at-home parent and a graduate from a coding boot camp. The apprenticeship program runs in cohorts located in a particular city, although U.S. sessions went virtual last year due to the coronavirus.

Leap recently entered Phase 2, an expansion into Africa. The program recruits engineers to improve agricultural processes. The application process for a cohort in Kenya just closed. 

IBM also has an apprenticeship option called The New Collar program aimed at people without an advanced degree. The company looks for candidates who show adaptability, drive, creative problem solving and the ability to take ownership. Participants earn a salary during the 12-month program. There are apprenticeship roles in data science, software engineering, tech sales and cybersecurity in locations all around the United States. A recent opening for a software engineer: application development apprentice lists a high school diploma or GED along with knowledge or experience in one or more of these technical skills: Java, social coding, container development or application development.

Finally, CyberDefenses offers a cybersecurity apprentice program. Participants become a full-time member of the team with salary and benefits and complete nine months of training about system administration, networking and security. The program offers certification as well and job placement help for program graduates. This program is registered as an Apprentice USA Program with the U.S. Department of Labor and is supported by the Texas Workforce Commission. CyberDefenses Academy and Austin Community College developed the courses.

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...