Two of the biggest challenges for the technology industry are building a more diverse workforce and finding skilled employees for mid-level jobs, including software and web developers and project managers.
An apprenticeship program being launched today by the WTIA Workforce Institute hopes to address both problems — and create a new national model that could be expanded outside of Washington.
There is an “urgent industry need” to prepare workers ready to fill 8,000 new tech jobs each year in Washington alone, said Jennifer Carlson, executive director of the institute, which is the nonprofit arm of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA).
The goal for the new program — called Apprenti — is to train and place 600 workers in apprenticeships in the first four years, if not sooner. The program focuses primarily on candidates who are women, minorities or military veterans.
That alone won’t eliminate the need for skilled workers or relieve a diversity gap in which 20 percent of the tech workforce in the state is female and less than 3 percent are Hispanic or African American. But it’s a step in the right direction, Carlson said.
“You start doing that and compounding it, you can start to see some shift in the needle,” she said. “It will help attract more talent.”
The training, at least for the initial pool of participants and hopefully into the future, will be provided for free.
Financial support for setting up and initially running the program comes from $3.5 million in grants spread over five years from the U.S. Department of Labor and Washington State Labor & Industries. JP Morgan Chase is covering the cost of the initial round of training with a $200,000 grant.
The companies currently signed on to accept apprentices are Microsoft, F5 Networks, Accenture, Russell Investments, MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions, Impinj and several companies from the IAMCP (International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners).
“Apprenti is a great win for our organization,” said Chuck Edward, head of Global Talent Acquisition at Microsoft, in a media release. “It provides the opportunity for someone to come in and work side-by-side with our employees and learn from that experience. The program provides pre-apprenticeship training and helps us access a more diverse, qualified workforce.”
The program is unique for being the only technology-focused apprenticeship program registered with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I).
Apprenti works like this. An applicant completes an online assessment that determines their current skill level, evaluating their abilities in math, logical and critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. The applicants need to have completed high school or a GED, but are not asked about college or their professional experience. After their assessment is scored, those who qualify go through an interview process with potential employers.
“There are lot of biases built into the hiring process for tech companies and this is removing those biases to put everybody on an even footing,” Carlson said. “It is a truly competency based system. We have worked really hard to make this as unbiased as possible.”
One of the sectors that Apprenti is trying to target is veterans, many of whom might have limited college or workforce experience, but possess other highly desirable skills gained during their military service.
After the screening process, participants enroll in training that targets specific jobs. There are five occupations currently offered: database administrators, project manager, network security administrator and software and web developers. Training lasts between eight and 18 weeks, depending on the job.
The training is expected to cost roughly $10,000 to $12,000 per apprentice. Apprenti is contracting with Code Fellows, TLG Learning in Bellevue and others to provide the training. The hope is to find additional funding to cover the training costs after the first batch of recruits.
“My single greatest challenge is ensuring we can keep the academic portion entirely free,” Carlson said
Then the apprentice begins a one-year job at one of the companies involved in the program. They earn 60 percent of the full salary of a qualified employee, though in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties the amount cannot be less than $42,000 a year. If the employer pays a higher rate for their employees, the salary goes up.
Apprenti follows the same model of other, established apprenticeship programs in that after six months, the employee gets a 10 percent raise. At the end of the year, the apprentice receives an annual review. If the employer chooses to hire the person, they are required to treat the employee like they do other workers and must increase their salary to close or equal to market rate.
“There is an assurance for the companies in the ecosystem that they’re getting a qualified person,” Carlson said. Additionally, “they get to try this person before they buy.”
In addition to helping workers find jobs, the program also provides opportunities for networking in the sector — an often essential step to finding employment that can be difficult for people with no connections in the field.
The program also provides support for the apprentices, including advisors who can help them through problems that could come up with the employer or job.
Apprenti has done some initial outreach through nonprofit groups to recruit applicants, and 260 have done the assessment so far. While organizers expected recruits in their 20s, the average age is 34. The program will usher in a new round of apprentices every three months.
“The application of the apprenticeship model to the IT industry is exciting,” said Jody Robins, program manager of apprenticeship at L&I, in a media release. “Our partnership with WTIA to launch Apprenti has the potential to change the face of apprenticeships, moving from building trades to the cutting edge of technology.”