How An Apprenticeship Pilot Might Solve Tech’s Diversity Problem by Kavi Guppta

How An Apprenticeship Pilot Might Solve Tech’s Diversity Problem by Kavi Guppta

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a surge of over 1.3 million technology sector jobs by 2020. These jobs will fall under computer programming and computer support specialist roles.

Despite the increase in jobs, the tech sector will have trouble filling these roles because of a widening skills gap in the marketplace. A lack of representation among women, African-Americans, Hispanics, new immigrants, and even veterans makes it difficult to create any diversity within the field.

Apprenti, an apprenticeship program being piloted by the Washington Technology Industry Association, is hoping to diversify the skill set and talent pool. The program combines training, testing, and a co-op employment placement model to match newly skilled tech workers with hiring tech companies. Apprenti was recently awarded $7.5 million by the U.S. Labor Department to expand its apprenticeship model nationwide.

Jennifer Carlson serves as the Executive Director of the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Workforce Institute. Carlson oversees development and implementation of the Apprenti program within Washington State, and eventually nationwide.

In the conversation below, Carlson and I discuss why a tech apprenticeship program can put more people to work; the challenges of scaling a program like Apprenti; how the program aims to close the skills and diversity gap that exists in the current workforce; and how companies can participate.

Kavi Guppta: What is the Washington Technology Industry Association?

Jennifer Carlson: The WTIA is the Washington Technology Industry Association. It’s the trade association that represents all of the tech companies in the state of Washington for policy and lobbying, and advocacy work at the state level on everything from education change to how to stimulate our economy in the state around technology. The Workforce Institute is a derivative of a project we started about 2 years ago, really looking at where we could have a true impact on the industry in the state of Washington, but we are not governed by the boundaries of Washington. The institute was filed as a national company so that the program that we’re developing, an apprenticeship, could be rolled out everywhere, and not exclusively here. It’s being piloted in Washington.

KG: What is it trying to achieve?

JC: Addressing the urgent need that we have today is going to have to be a far more organic solution, and what we came up with is partnering with the state of Washington’s Labor and Industries group and the Federal Department of Labor to do a pilot program on rolling out registered apprenticeship in technology. The focus is on mid-tier jobs that may not require a STEM degree, or even a college degree.

As we stratify the hiring landscape, there are companies, from Amazon, and Zillow, and Microsoft MSFT -0.18%, and F5, and look at what jobs truly require STEM, CS degree and higher, let’s leave those where they are, we can’t impact those. That’s a college output that’ll take 10 years to improve the number of people, or the quantity being pumped out, and look at the next layer down of operational roles, that support tech or are quasi tech. These are areas that companies have a really difficult time finding qualified people, or cannot justify the cost of acquiring those people and moving them cross-country to take those jobs in a given state.

We’ve really worked with the companies in that landscape to then say, okay, let’s build a job taxonomy. What’s 80% of the job standard across all companies for a database administrator, a project manager, a java front-end developer, or a network security admin, that are all mid-tier jobs. Do they require a degree? If not, can we get you to look beyond what you normally look at and hire from our pool, and what short term or accelerated certification does the industry acknowledge and say is valuable and give them a strong enough footing that they can come to you and learn on the job after they’ve received that training. For a DBA, for example, it would be a Microsoft certification. For a network security admin, it might be a Cisco certification. For project management, it’s PMP.

KG: Why do you think the apprenticeship model can work better than an internship?

JC: We’re pretty connected to companies, and what we’re hearing directly from the companies, and we’re even hearing it from college grads, is that internships don’t give enough depth in a specific job field or a specific job. You’re not getting access to enough people, so typically, your interns are enrolled or registered with a full-time 4-year institution, so you’re still dealing with the same limitation on the number of people you have access to.

They’re coming through a 3-month or a 6-month term with a company where they may have been exposed to multiple jobs, but they haven’t done the depth of work in any one specific job to become thoroughly proficient, so the reason companies, at least in Washington, are publishing jobs that require a 2 to 3 year experience window, they’re trying to avoid taking people fresh out of college because they’re still having to invest in training them when they get there.

This model allows them to look at a much more diverse population, and diverse is a key word. It’s not only diverse in that we’re looking outside of the 4-year institution system. It’s also looking at women, minorities, and vets, and trying to attract more diversity to the industry.

And giving them a non-traditional pathway that isn’t relegated to you must be enrolled in school, it gives them a greater depth of understanding of a specific job that they can become really truly proficient in. Then, we’re working with companies to try and work through what retention looks like at the end of that one year term so that they’re not only viable to your company, but viable to the ecosystem. If they leave your company, they’re viable to somebody else.

KG: What are some of the concrete tactics the program is going to do to attract those underrepresented groups?

JC: We did a soft launch and worked exclusively in the community with 30 organizations that were targeting or working with veterans, African Americans, Hispanics, and women’s groups from the Urban League and NAACP to Workforce Development Council to Women’s Funding Alliance, and they were the only ones who had access from the start just so that we could work through the system, make sure that what we were building was working properly. We built an online assessment tool that the companies have said will help them kind of separate the wheat from the chaff, and say, okay, who actually has competency? It’s math, logic, and critical thinking, and emotional intelligence questions. There are a little over 100 questions on the assessment, and we’ve had 269 people in 3 weeks come through those organizations to take the assessment. The logic and critical thinking is actually the greater challenge area, not the math. That is about 40% of the test.

KG: Why do you think the logic element is a bit weaker than the math?

JC: Too early for us to say. It would be purely my opinion at this point. If I look at it, and I do have the ability to look at a granular level of the individual questions, and we haven’t gotten there. We are going to do that at the 1-month mark.

We are capturing who the referral entity or organization is, and all of our community partners have committed to taking the information that we have to talk about the areas of improvement that their cohorts are going to need, and they’re committed to sitting them down in a room and train them, and help them brush up on those skills.

KG: How is that messaging being made visible to these groups?

JC: We did trade fairs. We’ve done a number of those. We’ve also met and did an orientation directly with the 30 organizations that we approached and gave them the link early on with an entirely built messaging framework that they would use through all of their social media outlets to promote the program.

KG: What’s the value proposition that you’re kind of telling these different cohorts, or, I guess, these underrepresented groups. What are you saying to them in order to attract them?

JC: It’s a guaranteed job if you get through the 3 steps. Unlike going to a code academy who we have partnerships with to use as training entities; if you’re accepted to the program, it’s because you’ve completed the assessment and been ranked. Highly ranked candidates are coming in and interviewing with companies.

The company accepts you and offers you the job, and then you have to complete the accelerated training program. That gets you the guaranteed job. You have a job waiting for you as a dangling carrot when you’re accepted at that midpoint, and at the interview stage.

They know they have a job. They know they have a full year of learning on the job coming their way which has been the single greatest obstacle that they’ve been facing along with their ability to either go back to school and learn something of a different industry, or to go to school, since this is a competency-based system, and we are working really, really hard to make this as unbiased as possible when you come in and setup your account.

KG: Where are the biggest challenges that the program is facing?

JC: The first cohort is getting ready to formulate in 3 weeks, so we don’t yet know what the candidates’ obstacles are going to be. We have the education fully funded for the first cohort so that there’s no financial obligation on the folks coming into the program.

We’re working very, very diligently to make that the staple of the program going forward, but we know that there will be some financial challenges for people who are going to have to take off from work for that entry period while they’re in training before they go to their job and start with an income. I think that that’s going to be a pain point that we’re going to have to work through with folks. We have a number of organizations, both public and private who are willing to help with that, but certain criteria have to be met, and I think that there’s going to be a lot of people in the middle that may not qualify for those assistance programs.

KG: What’s the cost of this current pilot right now?

J.P. Morgan is underwriting the education. You’re looking at between $10-$12 thousand dollars per person just for the education, and we’re not offering a stipend because these are certified programs. For example, veterans can use their G.I. bill.

We’re working with some public and private entities to help provide support services for folks who might need additional help while they’re in the classes, but there’s going to have to be eligibility around that, so that’s, I think, going to be a pain point for us in the first few cohorts.

KG: What’s your argument to encourage more hiring partners to sign on? I would assume that that’s the only way it’s going to scale at this point?

JC: Correct. The challenge for the companies is how they’re viewing their current hiring needs, and to be really candid. Where we have a quick and immediate success is when we speak with the hiring heads, so we get an executive sponsor at the CIO, CTO level, somebody in the C-suite who says, “We are going to do this because it’s the right thing to do, and this is going to help us bridge a gap.”

Then it’s remanded to an HR department to execute. That works really, really well, so it’s getting those folks bought in, and being able to get on their calendars, and at this time of year, getting in while they’re doing their planning for fiscal 2017. When we start with other channels, like the HR realm, it tends to lead to a lot of discussion and meetings, but not necessarily a lot of action.

KG: How does the training set candidates up for the rigours of specific corporate cultures? Each one would be so different.

JC: The first step is that 12-week, depending on occupation, immersive training program that they have to go through. They’re going to leave a job, whatever it is, to come and do that. It’s a pretty rigorous program. They have to hit the A level before they can progress into the job, so they’re going to class full-time and doing homework at night. It’s kind of like going back to school, but in a fully-immersive, 40-hour-a-week environment for many weeks on end, so that should be their first taste of the rigor that they’re going to experience when they get onto the job.

In addition, we have counselling. We have a professional executive coach who’s going to work with them in a cohort basis, and kind of give them an opportunity to talk through any challenges that they’re having, things that they’re experiencing that they’re not used to, give them sort of a safe environment to be able to ask questions.

There’s also a buddy system being built where they will have somebody who they can work with directly, not only the person who is coaching them on their job that’s doing the same work, but somebody else in the organization who they can go to for assistance on the culture side. That was part of the reason why we focused on the large companies to start off with because they had enough infrastructure to do that.

KG: What are the core metrics of your program? What does success look like?

JC: We’re piloting in Washington. Success looks like 600 successfully-placed apprentices in jobs who complete their one-year. In addition to that, you’ve got the demographic breakout. At minimum, more that 50% of those folks need to fall into a disenfranchised women, minority, and veteran population for placement. That 600 is over 4 years.

KG: Why do you believe this is a model that can really work?

JC: I think it’s an easily-scalable model. Contrary to popular belief, I think companies like IBM have had internal models. Microsoft has had an internal model where they’ve brought folks in either military, or they brought folks at IBM at a junior level at that, you know, 17 to 24 age range, and put them into an internal onboarding and training program, and seeing good success with them.

Over time, they simply haven’t scaled internally, and the skillsets that they attain that come through their internal model are not necessarily transferable, so you’re giving a really strong foundation for folks, but one that only works if you’re staying in that ecosystem, the IBM and its vendor ecosystem, or the Microsoft and its vendor network ecosystem. This allows for a transferable or portable skillset that not only works in our industry when you think of high tech, but also when you look at project management, DBA, even cloud and other, you know, network security. Those are portable to healthcare, and to even manufacturing, so this is an area where if they find themselves not extremely comfortable in this industry, but they’re getting the experience, they have the ability to leave, and vice versa. We can place them in other industries, and then attract them back into the tech industry.

With support at the federal level with the Department of Labor, that roll out nationally means we can pick geographies that, as you’ve pointed out in your articles, are either high tech, or we can go where the companies want the jobs. We can work with AT&T and put them in Texas, or in Atlanta, and know that they’re proliferating out into an ecosystem after they leave those companies, or if they leave those companies, that they will also be sustainable beyond the boundaries of that company.

KG: Why aren’t large companies already thinking this way?

JC: It’s a combination of factors, actually, because we’ve had this conversation with them many times. They want somebody else to pre-vet the candidates. You have a 3-step vetting process that’s confirmed for all companies across the board. Each one has been either doing it on its own or not at all. That’s part of the reason why they’ve had so much rigor around their hiring tactics in that they weren’t willing to look beyond a 4-year degree from select institutions because there was a quality measurement that they understood how to quantify. This allows them to reduce the risk on the folks they’re bringing in, and allow for an alternate pathway for maybe non-traditional populations without the traditional backgrounds to still be successful in their jobs by having to pass through the assessment, the interview process, and the pre-education before they start their job.

KG: What kind of concessions has your organization had to make in order to find a level of compromise with all the different interests?

JC: I think you know that our industry is very pragmatic, so one of the chief concessions has been that they’re willing to take the chance on folks that may not meet their traditional standards and pay them because they’re getting an apprenticed rate, so that’s lower than the market standard, and it’s protected because it’s part of a federally-registered apprenticeship program.

They’re not willing to bite off more than they can chew at this point, so they’re not yet underwriting the cost of potential stipends for people during that training period, and they’re not underwriting the education costs yet. That is something we’ll build towards when we’ve shown and demonstrated success, and we know that the financial model will be easily documented.

We’ll get to that point, but in the interim, it means we’re looking for alternate funding sources to underwrite those costs of education and so on. Until we have probably 5 or 6 cohorts under our belt, and show the stickiness of these folks, we’re going to have to use private funds to do that and make sure that it’s financially viable for the people coming through the program.

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Continue the conversation with me here: @kaviguppta.


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