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Earn and learn

Apprenticeships are helping companies build talent

By Christopher Null

  • Large tech companies are launching apprenticeship programs to fill critical skill gaps
  • Companies can partner with a local technical school or community college to get apprentice programs off the ground
  • Research shows that apprenticeships boost employee loyalty and company morale

Three years ago, Josh Williams, chief security officer at Alliance Technology Group, was burning through his hiring budget and still not close to filling all of his open roles.

Finding college grads for a growing number of entry‑level cybersecurity jobs at the IT services company was difficult enough. (After all, there are an estimated 3 million more STEM‑related job openings in the U.S. than qualified personnel to fill them.) Convincing candidates to accept the salaries he’d allocated for the positions was near impossible.

The solution he landed on: a tech apprenticeship program where he could hire untrained workers full‑time and teach them on the job.

Apprenticeships are more commonly associated with blue‑collar professions like electricians or welders. But with tech skills in such high demand, that’s starting to change.

To bolster recruiting efforts and teach critical skills in hot demand, tech companies and IT departments are turning to the idea of “earn and learn” positions that are closely modeled on apprenticeships in skilled trades.

Amazon.com, Microsoft and Salesforce.com all have IT apprenticeship programs. IBM plans to have 100 apprentices within its cloud security and blockchain groups by the end of 2018. And LinkedIn recently launched an apprenticeship program called REACH that trains workers to become software engineers in six months.

ATG’s program combines instructor‑led classroom work with on‑the‑job training that pairs apprentices with managers and other senior security staff.

“We cycle through classroom training on various topics, teaching the building blocks, then put them out in front of clients, under supervision,” Williams says. The full program takes about a year. Successful apprentices become full‑time employees.

You’re hired

Apprenticeships are surprisingly easy to set up. Companies typically start by identifying a handful of mentors, then designing a curriculum. Companies can partner with a local technical school or community college to enroll apprentices in formal coursework—paid for by the employer—if the company can’t provide its own.

Apprenticeships needn’t follow a set structure or length. Companies can design a format that suits their needs, whether it’s for more qualified pipe fitters and electricians or DevOps engineers. The common thread is state or federal oversight and accreditation. Twenty‑three states work with the federal apprenticeship system run by the U.S. Department of Labor; the other 27 run their own programs.

Once launched with live students, the overseeing agency helps ensure that coursework and hands‑on training meet employment standards. (Interested companies can start with the Department of Labor’s guide to launching an apprentice program.)

ATG, which is based in Hanover, Maryland, recently started working with the state’s labor department to formalize its program. Williams says the process has been surprisingly painless.

“It’s essentially the same as the trades,” says Williams. “You go through the same governing body that handles plumbers and electricians. Someone at the state level approves everything they learn.”

One challenge: Maryland law mandates that a trainer can only manage two apprentices at any time, which limits how many apprentices ATG can hire. The company currently has 12 security apprentices working through the program.



Big payback

Apprentice programs give companies access to a large and affordable hiring pool, ranging from high school graduates to military veterans. Studies also show that apprenticeships tend to produce more loyal employees and boost company morale.

Hiring college graduates will always be important, Williams says, but it’s dauntingly expensive for many junior tech roles in tech.  Because few college graduates come out of school with any serious training in cybersecurity, many must be retrained from day one anyway.

With apprentices, on‑the‑job learning is explicitly part of their compensation. The cost of their training is offset by lower salaries.

A growing number of organizations have popped up in the last few years to help companies set up apprentice programs. Groups like Praxis, GAN Global, and Jobs for the Future (JFF) are designed to provide assistance to both aspiring apprentices and the companies that want to hire them.

Deborah Kobes, deputy director for JFF’s apprenticeship center, says that these organizations can streamline the process and help companies “launch programs more quickly, and more effectively, if they work in collaboration with experts who know how program designs can help attract and retain talent.”

Williams can’t say enough good things about ATG’s program, noting that one of his apprentices even worked with the FBI on a malware investigation. “They’re doing real work,” he says. “From our perspective it’s been an awesome experience, and it’s bearing fruit.”

Christopher Null is a longtime technology and business journalist who contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, Wired, and other publications.

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