Tech Apprenticeships Promise a New Path for Diverse Candidates

Tech-focused apprenticeships are on the rise. But some companies still see a four-year degree as a must-have.
Brian Nordli
May 4, 2020
Updated: May 12, 2020
Brian Nordli
May 4, 2020
Updated: May 12, 2020

When Aeone Singson graduated from Seattle Central Community College with an associate’s degree in computer science, her prospects for a career as a UX designer had never seemed bleaker.

At that point, she had spent years going to school on and off while working full-time minimum wage jobs to pay for tuition. When she finally received the financial aid she needed to finish her associate’s degree in 2014, she still had to hustle between three campus jobs to make ends meet. By the end of it, the two most traditional paths to a tech career — a bachelor’s degree or a bootcamp — didn’t seem financially feasible without a job guaranteed at the end of it.

Still, she stayed involved in tech, stoking the embers of her dream working as a technical liaison at a health benefits platform company and teaching girls to code. Then she came across Jennifer Carlson giving a presentation on her new company, Apprenti — which connects technical apprentices with companies — at an Advancing Careers of Technical Women conference.

“As a person who has worked many, many jobs and was able to get promoted at most of them, I knew that I could present myself well if I were just given the chance.”

“Apprenti solved all of my problems in that 10-minute talk,” Singson said. “The gap in my education would be filled with practical, on-the-job training. As a person who has worked many, many jobs and was able to get promoted at most of them, I knew that I could present myself well if I were just given the chance.”

Singson joined the first cohort of workers to go through Apprenti’s apprenticeship program in 2017. After five months of classes, she apprenticed at Microsoft for a year and now works there as a web developer for Microsoft Stream. The program opened the doors that had all but closed to Singson after college.

“One of the things Apprenti said at the conference was, ‘We will help you, we will train you, and then we will ensure that you have a paid position after the on-the-job training,’” Singson said. “The process of apprenticeship as Apprenti structured it was more accessible.”

While apprenticeships have been around for centuries in trade industries like carpentry and construction, it’s still a relatively new concept for the U.S. tech industry. That’s something apprenticeship programs like Apprenti are hoping to change with support from the United States government, which has now poured in $200 million to fund and support apprenticeship endeavors in all industries — but especially tech.

With the tech industry struggling to find qualified candidates, apprenticeships hold a lot of promise as an alternative hiring source and a pipeline for diverse candidates with non-traditional backgrounds, according to a University Ventures white paper titled “Making Apprenticeships Work.” In addition to organizations like Apprenti and the Colorado-based Techtonic Group, companies like Accenture, Microsoft and Pinterest have started their own programs.

But for apprenticeships to work at scale, the industry will need to re-examine some of its preconceived notions of what kind of background is needed to work in tech.

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Apprenti Graduation Photo Microsoft Cohort
Apprenti’s cohort of Microsoft apprentices at graduation. | Photo: Apprenti

Expanding the Role of Apprenticeships

Carlson didn’t set out to build an apprenticeship program when she wrote the business plan for what became Apprenti.

At that time, in 2015, she had been working for the Washington Technology Industry Association to help the tech industry close the skills gap. She modeled her plan after the ways other countries grew business talent — with on-the-job training and tailored education. It wasn’t until the state reviewed it, and suggested she apply for President Barack Obama’s newly announced apprenticeship grants, that she put it together.

“They looked at what I wrote and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what an apprenticeship is like,’” Carlson said. “At least I only had to add one word.”

Even now, apprenticeships are most often associated with skilled vocational trades like electrical maintenance or carpentry. Singson, for one, didn’t even know apprenticeships existed in tech until she saw Carlson’s presentation in 2016.

That lack of awareness, both among companies and potential apprentices, is something Carlson is just starting to break through five years later.

“They looked at what I wrote and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what an apprenticeship is like.’”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an apprenticeship must contain five components — an employer, structured on-the-job training with an experienced mentor, related instruction, wage with pay increases for attainment and a nationally recognized credential at the completion of the program.

A traditional vocational apprenticeship would typically involve a student following a mentor on the job four days a week with one day for classes, Carlson said. It would take about three to five years to complete.

Apprenti and other apprentice providers in tech put a slight twist on the formula, placing all of the education in the beginning like a bootcamp, to suit the tech industry’s needs.

To go through Apprenti, which launched in Seattle and is now in 16 cities across 13 states, applicants need to have a high school diploma or GED to apply. It then provides a standardized assessment that measures math, logic, critical thinking and emotional intelligence, which Apprenti developed with partners like Microsoft, Amazon and Zillow. Anyone who scores 85 percent or higher is approved.

Candidates are able to take the test multiple times and are ranked based on their scores. Once they are matched with an employer, they receive five months of classroom training through a mix of certified corporate trainers, code academies and community college courses. They then spend seven months working and training with a mentor.

Apprentices earn a minimum $17-per-hour wage with incremental salary growth as they progress, and end the program with an accreditation equivalent to a bachelor’s degree and a job. The program is free for applicants, and employers pay Apprenti to facilitate finding, training and onboarding the apprentices. The employer pays the apprentice’s salary, but can qualify for a tax credit if they hire an apprentice.

 

Apprenti graduation group
Apprenti apprentices pose for a graduation photo. | Photo: Apprenti

Closing the Last-Mile Training Gap

While companies like Microsoft, Accenture and Pinterest offer their own internal apprenticeship programs, outsourced models like Apprenti’s are starting to grow in popularity, said Ryan Craig, co-author of the University Ventures white paper.

Techtonic Group in Colorado has found a way to tie job training with production. The company builds mobile apps for other businesses, but there’s a twist: the people working on the apps are also apprentices for the company.

Techtonic Group does all the legwork finding the apprentices, educating them and providing them with on-the-job training. It’s programs like that that hold the greatest promise for apprenticeships, Craig said.

Four-year degrees are not only becoming prohibitively expensive for some, but they are slow to offer courses that match the fast-changing skill requirements needed to work in tech. Meanwhile, many hiring companies don’t have the time or funds to train and upskill employees to fit those roles, Craig said.

“What we see is these faster and cheaper outsourced apprenticeship models are not only effective but in many ways, a more effective pathway to good tech jobs that college grads are increasingly having a difficult time getting.”

As a result, millions of graduates struggle to qualify for those engineering jobs and end up underemployed, he said. Bootcamps popped up to provide digital skill training for an entry-level workforce, but the tuition rates can end up putting students in further debt.

As a result, there’s a “last mile” education gap, he said. Outsourced apprenticeships fill that gap by facilitating training that is tailored to the employer, and offering a path to success for an underemployed workforce.

“What we see is these faster and cheaper outsourced apprenticeship models are not only effective but in many ways, a more effective pathway to good tech jobs that college grads are increasingly having a difficult time getting,” Craig said.

 

Rethinking the importance of a college degree

Before Carlson launched Apprenti, she formed a consortium of 20 tech companies and asked them to look at every tech position and determine how many needed a four-year degree. Their response — only about 40 percent of the jobs required a four-year degree or higher.

“That meant 60 percent of tech jobs are on the table,” Carlson said. “And yet, we’ve put college degree requirements on everything.”

Therein lies the promise of apprenticeships, and the hitch. While apprenticeships are widely held up as a great way to promote diverse talent in tech, companies are still reticent to look past the pedigree of a four-year degree, said Wayne Sutton, founder of the D&I consulting firm Change Catalyst.

Finding a job in tech has increasingly become about where you went to school and who you know, Sutton said.

“Because of where we are as a society today based on pedigree and networks, that will probably never change,” Sutton said.

It doesn’t help that, in the U.S., entering the workforce without a degree is inextricably linked to a vocational career, and not mid-level skill jobs like software engineering, Craig said. At the same time, companies posted 3.9 million tech jobs last year, while universities only graduated 65,000 computer science graduates, according to Carlson.

“It came down to, they have the skill sets in our diverse groups, but they may not have the credentials.”

Carlson also brought together a group of stakeholders from diverse backgrounds who represented either nonprofits or foundations to share their perspectives on the issue.

“It came down to, they have the skill sets in our diverse groups, but they may not have the credentials,” Carlson said. “So how can we reduce bias in the system? They can’t apply for the job through the front door ... when they don’t have the technical skills or education.”

Apprenticeships can offer the entry-level on-ramp for those workers. Carlson has prioritized recruiting and training women, members of underrepresented minority groups and military veterans — many of whom are kept out of the industry by financial barriers. Its model is then designed to support them through the training process, Carlson said.

The employer and state government subsidize the education, while Apprenti offers interview support, job coaching and training that matches the job. The toughest challenge is completing the 20 weeks of training because it doesn’t leave time for a side-job, Carlson said. Apprenti does provide some resources to assist candidates through that time and is working to develop a fund that apprentices can borrow from.

Still, the guarantee of employment — something neither universities nor bootcamps offer — and a jump in wage makes the prospect more manageable for some.

So far, Apprenti has placed nearly 1,000 apprentices at companies ranging in size from Microsoft to 60-person startups. Eighty-four percent of its placements are either women or members of underrepresented minority groups, at a median age of 33 years old, according to Carlson. Some were unemployed, others had Ph.D.s and wanted to switch careers. All are treated the same and paid the same amount on employment.

“The one thing they have in common in all this is life experience and a desire to transition into a different career line,” Carlson said.

Outside of Apprenti, internal apprenticeship programs have improved diversity at both Pandora and Accenture. Pandora’s first two apprentice cohorts included 50 percent people of color and 85 percent women, according to a recent story in VentureBeat.

Still, apprenticeships aren’t a cure-all. They can help candidates a foot in the door, but they don’t solve issues like the wage gap or lack or minority representation at senior levels.

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Apprenti graduation Cohort 4
Apprenti apprentice graduation photo. | Photo: Apprenti

Training Goes Beyond Education

When Singson embarked on her apprenticeship, the biggest barrier for her was making ends meet during the first five months of education.

For five days a week, she and her fellow apprentices at Microsoft — “The First 24,” as they called themselves — spent eight hours a day in class immersing themselves in the intricacies of C#, Python, PostgreSQL and Java. It left little to no room to work a side job, but the promise of employment and the fact that it didn’t cost her anything made it worth it, she said.

Beyond an education, those training sessions helped prepare Singson for the ambiguities of a new kind of work, where the problems aren’t always as clear as a workbook assignment. Instead, she learned how to define the scope of a project and ask others for help.

“Yes, I was learning languages and data structures and how to apply them, but I was also learning how to survive at work because I was learning how to not have clarity and find it for myself,” Singson said. “That was more impactful in the long run.”

Now in her second year at Microsoft, she is passing her knowledge on to new apprentice cohorts, pulling them into a Microsoft Teams channel and offering advice.

 

Apprenticeships cultivate employees to be retained

For much of Apprenti’s existence, the tech industry and economy have experienced a long period of sustained economic growth. While the economic impact of COVID-19 is still unknown, it has disrupted revenue streams and sent businesses tumbling into uncertainty causing layoffs, hiring freezes and the cancelation of internship programs.

Despite all of that tumult, however, Carlson said Apprenti has not seen any of its apprentices laid off.

Some of that is due to sample-size, as apprentices aren’t a major part of the workforce yet, but it also helps that they are a permanent fixture on a company’s payroll — not an expansion like internships, she added.

“They’re in a job that’s occupying a headcount that was planned,” Carlson said. “This is not, try before you buy. These folks are being cultivated to be retained.”

It has required Apprenti to pivot its model, however. Since apprentices can’t be on-site, Apprenti had to obtain temporary regulatory approval to observe the hours apprentices are putting in online for companies. For students, Apprenti has pivoted to digital classes and offers resources like internet access and laptops for anyone who needs it.

“This is not, try before you buy. These folks are being cultivated to be retained.”

Still, the situation has opened up new opportunities. The company is pivoting to focus on providing food providers and healthcare with tech workers, and hopes that the temporary approval for online training can become permanent. If that’s the case, it makes the program more flexible for companies with a national presence and opens up more opportunities for people with disabilities, Carlson said.

Apprenti is also working with companies to retrain staff that might otherwise be laid off or furloughed to fill open tech positions within the company.

While it’s too soon to know how layoffs and hiring freezes will shape the unemployment pool, Carlson does see a greater need for tech workers in the future as companies across all industries address the infrastructure demands of a remote workforce. When the time comes for hiring, she hopes it’ll come with a renewed vow to improve diversity, which apprenticeships are ready to fill.

“Companies might have a reset opportunity at this point if they are downsizing staff to create some new staff and improve diversity,” Carlson said. “But they can only improve it as far as the candidate pool and the pipeline is diverse.”

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