Apprenticeships address workforce, diversity challenges

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At Techtonic, a small software developer based in Boulder, Colorado, the idea for starting an apprenticeship program began in 2016 when the company wanted to see if it could hire locally rather than looking abroad.

A review of its employees found that most of them came to their job through different paths – there were English majors, civil engineers and a few were self-taught developers. But the one common thread they shared was they all learned how to write software on the job.

“There are a lot of people out there who know how to write software but don’t really have an on-ramp to get into this kind of career,” said Techtonic CEO Heather Terenzio.

At a virtual conference this week on the future of work and learning held by Jobs for the Future, Terenzio recalled a young caterer who approached her after a talk she gave at a vocation school in Colorado about careers in software development. He told her that for several years he was learning on his own to write software, but he didn’t have a degree to get a job. She agreed to hire him.

“Within a couple of months, he was learning everything that we could teach him,” Terenzio said. “We had this epiphany that there might be a lot of people in the same situation that are looking for an on-ramp and are super talented.”

Not only have Techtonic’s apprenticeships expanded available software development jobs locally, but they have also helped to diversify its workforce, drawing more women and employees from different disciplines who have the skills.

“Once you start taking all the barriers away, the diversity just starts showing up,” Terenzio said.

Talent development for all

Techtonic is the first U.S. software developer to have a registered apprenticeship, and it continues to innovate the apprenticeship model. For example, it’s apprentices work on their clients’ projects, and clients can hire the apprentices at the end of a project, Terenzio said.

With the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests against racial injustice, Techtonic has looked at how it can make a bigger difference around diversity. Next week, it plans to announce that it will pledge to bring 100 diverse software developers from underrepresented groups into its paid apprenticeship program over the next year, Terenzio said.

IBM also saw how apprenticeships can help develop its workforce while also opening more opportunities for many local residents. There’s also an element of corporate social responsibility, said Jennifer Oddo, manager of workforce and apprenticeship initiatives at IBM.

“These programs are really geared to drive and help those in the underrepresented populations,” she said. “I think we’re going to start seeing more localization of that talent pipeline.”

A growing number of U.S. companies are taking on training roles similar to Techtonic and IBM, said Orrian Willis, TechSF manager at the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

“There’s this new ethos within tech, at least, which is we don’t always have to be consumers of talent; we can kind of move to being developers of talent,” he said.

A retention issue

During Tuesday’s session on apprenticeships, officials from Aon Services, IBM and Techtonic shared why their companies have bought into apprenticeships and how they hope to expand the model internally and among other companies. These companies are breaking the mold for apprenticeships, a training model that has traditionally been used in the trades and construction industries.

Aon Services started its apprenticeship program because it had a retention problem with its entry-level positions, said Daniel Serota, public affairs manager at Aon. The company saw new hires leave after six to eight months on the job. It reviewed those positions and determined most of them didn’t require a four-year degree. Aon also examined how it could work with outside organizations, such as community colleges, to fill positions that don’t require a baccalaureate, Serota said.

In 2012, Aon started an apprenticeship program in the United Kingdom that was later adopted by its Chicago location, allowing apprentices to earn an associate degree while working.

IBM started to use apprenticeships more for a similar reason. There are many IT occupations that no longer require four-year degrees, such as software developers, cybersecurity and cloud support, said Oddo.

“What mattered most is that people had the skills and aptitude to perform the role,” she said.

In fall 2017, IBM launched its first cohort of five software engineer apprentices in Raleigh, North Carolina. It now has more than 500 apprentices across 30 different job roles in 17 states, Oddo said.

Developing pre-apprenticeships

Aon and IBM are also among a growing number of companies using pre-apprenticeships to help high school students explore career and technical occupations. Aon is working with Chicago Public Schools to educate teachers and students about available jobs based on their career goals. Meanwhile, IBM last year launched a pre-apprenticeship IT program, using a Jobs for the Future pre-apprenticeship framework to get it started.

Employers are examining how to help high school students who are not college-bound move into careers in technology or other careers through apprenticeships, Willis said. He noted that many students who eventually find their way into an apprenticeship are older. In California, the average age of apprentices is 29, so about a decade has passed since they finished high school.

“That’s a huge gap,” Willis said. “That’s a big missed opportunity.”

Encouraging other employers

Aon, IBM, Techtonic and other companies are also encouraging other employers to try apprenticeships, noting they offer a good return on investment (ROI) and provide economic mobility for local residents. Aon holds regular networking sessions for employers that are interested in starting their own apprenticeships. Those employers can talk with companies that already offer the programs and with the apprentices themselves. The meetings also give apprentices an opportunity to expand their own network.

“The best salesmen are the apprentices themselves,” Serota said. “They are the people that I bring when I have conversations with employers to talk about their experience.”

Aon joined with several local and national foundations to create Apprenticeship 2020, a $3.2 million fund to accelerate efforts to scale high-quality, work-based learning programs in Chicago. About $1.5 million will go to City Colleges of Chicago to support employer relationships, recruit students to apprenticeship opportunities, and implement academic curriculum for apprenticeship and work-based learning programs.

The group also has developed a 60-page apprenticeship playbook to help companies address skills and training gaps to provide underrepresented groups access to jobs.

IBM also knew that one company couldn’t do it alone. So in 2019 it partnered with the Consumer Technology Association in creating an apprenticeship coalition to help raise awareness and use of apprenticeships in the industry. As part of this, IBM agreed to share its playbooks, tool kits and competency frameworks, Oddo said. Currently, 50 companies are participating in the coalition, including Amazon, Microsoft, Bosch as well as small- and medium-sized companies.

IBM is currently working on a stakeholder ROI report that is yielding some interesting findings, Oddo said. In a post-coronavirus world that will include plenty of financial belt-tightening, apprenticeships are an invaluable tool. First, they reduce acquisition costs and increase productivity and retention, she said, noting that IBM has a 90 percent retention rate among its apprenticeships.

“Every company is rethinking everything right now,” said Techtonic’s Terenzio. “It’s really a great time to get the concept of apprenticeship out there, and for employers to take them seriously.”

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.