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Jennifer Carlson, Apprenti’s director and co-founder, accepts the award for Geeks Give Back at the GeekWire Awards 2019 event in Seattle on Thursday. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The chance to more than double your income after 18 months of free training sounds almost too good to be true — except that it’s actually happening for graduates of the Apprenti apprenticeship program run by the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA).

Launched in September 2016, Apprenti provides free training and apprenticeships for candidates eager to work in the tech sector. The median annual salary of participants before enrolling is $29,000, which bumps up to a median income of $78,000 after completing the program. Apprenti has 130 graduates and 442 students enrolled.

For their game-changing work, Apprenti received this year’s Geeks Give Back Award at last night’s GeekWire Awards before a crowd of more than 900 attendees at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. Each year, this category recognizes an outstanding technology-driven effort to support the community and beyond.

Apprenti’s Executive Director Jennifer Carlson accepted the award alongside Michael Schutzler, CEO of the WTIA. The award was sponsored by BECU, a member-owned, nonprofit credit union.

“We created tech apprenticeships for the tech sector and we’re now in 11 states,” Carlson said. “And we’d love to work with everybody in this room to give you more talent and more diversity. So call us anytime.”

Alana Franklin, an Apprenti graduate, is congratulated by Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Tech Industry Association. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Last year the Geeks Give Back Award went to the Technology Access Foundation, a ground-breaking education program bringing STEM instruction to underserved students in the Puget Sound area. The winners in 2016, the inaugural year for the category, were global health nonprofit PATH and data visualization company Tableau. The groups launched the Visualize No Malaria campaign, aimed at eradicating the disease from Zambia. (Editor’s note: This year, the Geeks Give Back winner was chosen by our committee of 43 judges.)

In less than three years since launching, Apprenti has already expanded to 10 additional states including Oregon, California and Ohio, and will add four more by the end of the year, Carlson said. They hope to bring the number of current and former students to nearly 1,000 in that time. Apprentices include a former boxing coach and military veteran, a consultant returning to work after taking a break to raise her kids, and a union administrator with a military background.

What do apprentices says about Apprenti? “’It’s life changing,’ is usually the first thing we hear from them,” Carlson said in an interview last week. “‘It’s hard’ — that’s the second thing we hear. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Jennifer Carlson, executive director of Apprenti, speaks at the graduation ceremony. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

As it expands, Apprenti is playing an increasingly important role in addressing the lack of diversity in the tech sector: 85 percent of its participants are women, underrepresented racial minorities, military veterans or a combination of these categories. The program receives support from participating businesses, federal and state grants, and philanthropic organizations. Partnering employers include Microsoft, Amazon, Avvo and others.

And while unemployment numbers are low nationally, many people are “underemployed,” Carlson said, requiring them to hold multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. Training for low- and mid-level tech jobs can give an economic boost to Apprenti graduates.

“They are on a different career trajectory than they thought they would be,” Carlson said.

The median age of participants is 32. At this point in someone’s life, they’re not likely to drop everything and go back to school. They might have families to provide for and can’t afford the debt or a 4-year commitment for a university degree. And there isn’t enough capacity to educate and train these workers in colleges and universities.

“We have to create other on-ramps,” Carlson said.

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