Need Tech Talent? Look Beyond Computer Science Degrees.

Apprentices and nontraditional candidates add a fresh perspective to tech teams, plus help with diversity and recruiting.
Lisa Bertagnoli
Senior Staff Reporter
November 28, 2021
Updated: December 6, 2021
Lisa Bertagnoli
Senior Staff Reporter
November 28, 2021
Updated: December 6, 2021

Cecile Cromartie worked as a photojournalist in the Army, spent a few years in the entertainment industry and then landed a job as a police officer in Dallas. Cromartie, who also has an MFA in screenwriting, longed for a career in IT — she had learned about cybercrimes and cybersecurity as a police officer — but neither her schedule nor her budget made another degree feasible. 

One night, going through her City of Dallas emails, she clicked on one for a veteran’s employee resource group for the city. It contained a flyer for NPower, a nonprofit that would train veterans, such as herself, for careers in tech. NPower made a lot of promises, all of which had Cromartie incredulous. 

Why Look Beyond the 4-year CS Degree?

Apprentices and job candidates with nontraditional backgrounds or two-year degrees bring a fresh perspective to tech problems. They also possess grit, determination and a willingness to learn. Looking outside of the four-year-degree box can also help diversify teams (by age, gender, race and ethnic background) and fill open tech positions, expected to reach 85 million by 2030. 

“I thought, ‘There’s no way this is real,’” Cromartie said. “‘There’s no way they’re going to train me and pay me and help me find my career.’ But it was true.” Cromartie applied for the program and began it shortly before ending her police career. Because the apprenticeship was paid, she was able to “seamlessly” transition from law enforcement to tech. 

Cromartie started the six-month apprentice program in January of 2021, and in June of 2021, signed on as a full-time engineer/senior analyst in the Dallas office of global financial services company Citi, which partners with NPower to hire tech apprentices. Cromartie has a more regular schedule and earns 30 percent more than she did as a police officer. 

What she brings to the table: Leadership, team-building and problem-solving skills she acquired in the military, investigative skills and ability to tolerate high-stress situations she learned as a police officer, and her relative newness to tech. “Maximizing the opportunity to ask ‘no question is dumb but it feels dumb to ask’ questions does a great deal for team building and promotes constant learning for everyone,” she said. 

Cromartie anticipates a long career at Citi, one that wouldn’t have been possible without the apprenticeship. “It just shaved years off the timeline, and gave me focus,” she said. 

This is the third story in a three-part series about building a stronger tech workforce.

Part I:Why Your Hiring Process Is Screening Out Potential Top Performers 

Part II: Why Multigenerational Teams Are the Future of Tech

 

A Triple Win

What employees like Cromartie might lack in tech knowledge can be taught, but the grit, insights and determination they possess can’t be taught. 

“One quality we see over and over again is the eagerness to learn, upskill and adapt,” said Rebecca Moss, vice president, enterprise operations and technology program management at Citi. 

Apprentices usually enroll in a program because they’re interested in a career change. “Their background mixed with newly acquired skills or eagerness to succeed allows them to maintain an open mind, propose new ideas and take risks as they approach problems, begin projects, and take on new roles,” Moss said.  

Hiring candidates from these programs adds a level of energy plus a freshness of perspective to tech teams. 

Apprentices and community college students can also help address tech’s global labor shortage. The industry needs 85 million workers by 2030 to avoid $8.5 trillion in lost revenue, according to research by consultancy Korn Ferry. 

“One quality we see over and over again is the eagerness to learn, upskill and adapt.”

Apprentices and two-year students can also help tech address its own diversity issue, with 68 percent of companies admitting that their tech teams lack diversity, according to a survey from Wiley Education Services and training firm mthree. More than half the country’s 11 million community college students are in workplace-oriented training programs, according to data from Opportunity America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes economic mobility.

Paid apprenticeships and on-the-job training models offer education and opportunity to populations that might not have the bandwidth or finances to pursue a four-year degree full time. Hiring from this demographic helps assure diversity in economic background and lived experience, and perhaps racial and gender diversity, too. 

“Many of our students are coming from occupational clusters with low mobility and low wages, or they’re coming to us unemployed,” said Bertina Ceccarelli, CEO of NPower, which has 200-plus employer partnerships providing work-based learning. More than half the students who come to NPower have not been working, she added.

“We have this idea that in order to be successful in STEM — or within a big name technology company — one has to have a prestigious education and a focus on STEM from early on,” said Georgia Rittenberg, CEO of ComputerCare, a Santa Clara, California-based authorized service provider for warranty and non-warranty computers, mobile devices and servers. 

Rittenberg herself took an unusual path to tech, studying women’s healthcare policy in college and then launching a career in sales and marketing for a non-tech company. She joined ComputerCare as an account manager and was named CEO five years ago. “The way we get to a workforce that is more appropriately representative of society is by putting away the assumptions of the required checkboxes to achieve success, and provide the opportunity for all of us to bring our unique perspectives to the table,” she said. 

More on HiringTech Apprenticeships Promise a New Path for Diverse Candidates

 

Built to Train

Transmosis, a Phoenix-based cybersecurity company, hires tech professionals through its own training programs, which court disadvantaged people with an aim to increase diversity in tech. The company’s grant consortiums (partnerships with other companies and governmental entities) have received about $50 million in funding to upskill workers. 

Unemployed and underserved groups, including minorities, veterans and women, receive free training in cybersecurity, earning credentials from CompTIA, a nonprofit IT trade association. The program takes place in two stages. During the first, they’re trained rapidly to achieve CompTIA Security+ certification. The best candidates from the first stage progress to the second phase, a proprietary experiential training program where they work and learn in a live security operations center. 

“Ambition and transferable skills make people successful,” said Transmosis CEO Chase Norlin, who said he launched the company to upend the Silicon Valley model of hiring graduates from elite schools. Norlin, a serial entrepreneur, said the idea to train his own workers came to him while building his digital marketing firm. 

“The people we see are not entitled people. They go for it more. They’ve had tough lives. You see that in their ability to stick to the program.”

Norlin bootstrapped the digital marketing company and didn’t have the capital to hire superstars from big tech firms. Instead, he trained friends and family members and soon expanded to people who had been laid off or were out of work. “They had two common traits: transferable skills and ambition,” Norlin said. 

In seven years, Transmosis has trained and placed around 1,000 people in IT and cybersecurity positions. Many Transmosis trainees in the second part of the program — on-the-job training at a live security operations center — are hired away by bigger players. “We just lost someone to Amazon,” Norlin said.  

“The people we see are not entitled people,” Norlin said. “They go for it more. They’ve had tough lives. You see that in their ability to stick to the program.” 

Transmosis graduate Ash Williams had a degree in pharmaceutical sciences that he never really used. Williams, who grew up in England, moved to the United States five years ago after working in operations at a company in Africa. He wanted a job in tech, “but with no qualifications and no formal experience, nobody was going to hire me,” he said. 

Williams happened across the Transmosis training program through an email, which had a link to a tech aptitude assessment. He completed it and hit “send.” A few months later, he got a call from Transmosis saying he’d been selected for the training program.

Williams learned cybersecurity, took the CompTIA exam, and obtained certification in just under three months. He then advanced to the experiential phase of the program for seven months. In less than a year, he was promoted to security operations manager from analyst for transmosisONE, a Transmosis product that offers small businesses protection from cyberattack.  

His international experience gives him “a rounded perspective,” which Williams said serves him well when dealing with customers in an array of industries with varying technical know-how. He said his diverse background and broad experience enables him to be more thoughtful and empathetic with customers, traits that are key in the information security industry. 

 

Fellows to the Rescue

In 2021, Relativity, a Chicago-based e-discovery software company, began its Fellows program to tap new tech talent and diversify its workforce. “Talent is evenly distributed in our communities, but opportunity is not,” said Mike Gamson, CEO. “The e-discovery field needs more talent and more certified users, and that’s where Relativity Fellows comes in,” he said.  

The full-time, five-month-long Relativity Fellows apprenticeship prepares participants for careers in e-discovery and litigation support. So far, 23 graduates have been placed at Relativity or one of its client partners. Analicia Montanez, an application analyst at Relativity, is one of those graduates. 

Montanez had earned general-education credits at the College of DuPage, and then transferred to the University of Illinois-Chicago to complete a degree in biological sciences. After graduating, she found work in customer service at a  startup fintech company, but soon realized she probably wouldn’t be able to progress at that company in that role. 

She found out about the Relativity Fellows program from her sister and was intrigued. “What grabbed my attention about the program was the emphasis on talent and being someone who wants to learn and get into the industry,” she said. “I didn’t need x amount of years of experience already under my belt — I needed the willingness to learn and hunger to see myself succeed in a new field.”

During the apprenticeship, Montanez learned the basics of e-discovery. The work was not easy, especially the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists (ACEDS) exam, but Montanez said she felt cheered on and supported every step of the way. 

“I didn’t need x amount of years of experience already under my belt — I needed the willingness to learn and hunger to see myself succeed in a new field.”

As an application analyst at Relativity, Montanez helps support and maintain software infrastructures. Her experience with customer support, plus her biology degree, helps her bring a fresh perspective to her exchanges with clients. “I have the knowledge to talk to clients and problem-solve toward a resolution,” she said. Her biology training also included several courses that didn’t have much to do with each other, which taught her how to adapt to new situations. This has proved useful in her work with the service desk, products and infrastructure teams. “I need to quickly learn the ins and outs of different products and features to bring a solution for the client,” Montanez said.  

People from nontraditional education backgrounds bring new perspectives to problems, said Charles McCloughan, a pre-sales engineer at Relativity and Montanez’s supervisor. “From my experience working with Relativity Fellows, they have that mindset and ability to work through problems without clearly defined solutions,” he added. “The jump into tech would not be possible without this growth mindset.” 

More on HiringTech Shows Progress on Diversity, but There’s Still a Long Way to Go

 

Associates (Degrees) Wanted

Healthtech company Waystar, which employs 1,300 people, hires interns and apprentices through several programs. Annaleya Hamilton, a software developer apprentice at Waystar, came to the company through nonprofit Bit502, a Louisville company that allows apprentices to earn an associate degree, debt free, while getting work experience.

Hamilton had pursued a degree in aviation maintenance but eventually left school to intern at an aviation-maintenance company. In 2019, she began working at a bookkeeping company, but came to realize she really wanted a career in tech. She heard about Bit502 through Code Louisville, another tech-training program in which she had participated. 

“If it weren’t for Bit502 and Waystar, I’d still be working as a part-time bookkeeper at a job I didn’t enjoy,” she said. “With this program, I can dive into a career I really enjoy and can see myself doing for a long time.” 

Hamilton’s nontraditional background helps her think about problems from different perspectives. “Rather than just going the textbook route, I feel challenged to find different, more beneficial solutions to problems, or even simpler ones,” she said. “Not everything has to be overly complex and difficult.” 

Next spring, Waystar will launch the Waystar Scholars Mentoring Program, run in partnership with Jefferson Community and Technical College, a two-year school near the company’s headquarters in Louisville. The school has one of the most diverse populations in the state of Kentucky.

“We are accessing students who would not normally be in our pipeline, we are creating a path for equal access to tech jobs and driving equity in the workforce.”

The Waystar Scholars Mentoring Program will enable students at Jefferson Community and Technical College to gain hands-on experience in the healthcare industry while they continue earning an associate degree, said Waystar CTO Chris Schremser. 

“The number of folks who have come through our scholars and apprenticeship programs have been great,” said Schremser, noting that many didn’t have a path to a four-year degree. “They truly appreciate and really want this opportunity, which they might not have had otherwise,” he added. “Apprentices have a grit and desire to work incredibly hard in a way that’s refreshing.” 

Jefferson Community and Technical College offers a tech focus for students, and ideally, apprentices will have at least a nodding acquaintance with tech. “We’ll vet their ability to be successful in the program, plus their interest in the program and field,” Schremser said. Apprentices will begin working as entry-level engineers, and start writing code pretty much immediately. They will have a Waystar coach/instructor for support. 

The Waystar Scholars Mentoring Program comes on the heels of Waystar’s INROADS internship program, as well as its government-run and funded apprenticeships offering through its partnership with Bit502. The Bit502 program is three years old, and Waystar has hired four graduates each year. Waystar has also hired more than 15 tech employees from Code Louisville, a government-run and -financed training program in Louisville in which multiple big companies (Ford, UPS, Whirlpool, to name a few) participate. 

Apprenticeship programs are a triple win for Waystar, said Kimberly L. Sisnett, the company’s chief people officer. “We are accessing students who would not normally be in our pipeline, we are creating a path for equal access to tech jobs and driving equity in the workforce,” she said. “And we’re helping our community here in Louisville.” Sisnett added: “It’s a new way for us to cast a wider net for diverse talent.”

 

Employer Resources

Interested in starting an apprenticeship program or partnering with an existing program? Here are some places to start. 

  • The Center for Apprenticeship & Work-based Learning, supported by Google, Salesforce, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other prominent organizations, offers resources for setting up an IT apprenticeship program. 
  • Nonprofit INROADS helps businesses access diverse talent through leadership development. The program has 25,000 graduates working around the world, and offers workforce solutions (recruiting, screening, matching and training interns) via employer partnerships.
  • NPower, a Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit, has an IT Generalist apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor, and works with 200-plus employers on entry-level tech recruitment. 
  • Chicago Apprentice Network partners with employers, tech-focused nonprofits and Chicago-area community-college systems to offer apprenticeships in a variety of fields, including tech and software development. 
  • Opportunity America is a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on economic mobility for poor and working Americans. Its Jobs and Careers Coalition is composed of employers and employer associations that work to improve workforce-issue policy. 
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship program offers resources for both employers and job seekers in a variety of tech fields, including energy, financial services, IT, telecommunications and transportation. 
  • Apprenti is a nonprofit focused on tech apprenticeships and funded by prominent companies including Accenture and Microsoft Philanthropies. It uses mid-level tech careers to boost economic mobility, and offers resources for both employers and job seekers. 

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