by Sarah K. White

How to run a successful IT apprenticeship program

Nov 13, 202010 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Running an effective IT apprenticeship programs can help your company diversify your talent pipeline, fill skills gaps and upskill and retain workers on the latest technology.

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The word apprenticeship typically conjures up images of trade jobs — where plumbers, electricians and craft laborers learn skills on the job as they progress in their field. But apprenticeships have also found a place in IT, connecting companies with qualified talent who can be trained and upskilled for in-demand IT jobs. And as the pace of technology only increases, apprenticeships are an effective way to quickly address IT skills gaps by bringing on talented workers who are eager to get up to speed on the latest in-demand IT skills.

Formal apprenticeship programs can be registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. To be recognized by the DOL, an apprenticeship must offer business involvement, structured on-the-job training, job-related instruction in collaboration with education partners, rewards for skill gains and a national-recognized credential. But you can run an apprenticeship program that aligns with these standards, even if it’s not registered. For example, Year Up is a nonprofit organization dedicated to upskilling and reskilling underrepresented IT talent that operates very similar to an apprenticeship program.

Ultimately, a successful IT apprenticeship program combines real-life work experience with highly tailored training and education. Unlike internships that are typically unpaid or offer only college credit, apprentices are paid minimum wage while working and training. Companies pay to sponsor apprentices with the expectation that their wages will increase as they gain experience. No matter how you decide to bring on apprentices — partnering with a third party or designing your own program — there are certain steps you can take to ensure it’s a successful endeavor.

Diversify your IT talent pipeline through apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are an effective way to diversify your IT talent pipeline — especially if your company has stuck to traditional recruitment strategies that focus mainly on hiring recent college graduates. As education becomes more expensive than ever, it’s important to remember that not everyone can afford an undergraduate degree — only hiring college graduates limits diversity and your talent pool.

Year Up’s apprenticeship-style program is specifically focused on uplifting underrepresented talent in IT and other industries. The program offers a unique opportunity for young adults who want to get into an IT career, but who aren’t sure where to start, have a degree in a different field or haven’t had the chance to complete a four-year degree.

“Year Up and its corporate partners open their doors to talented young people that come from diverse backgrounds, and who bring a huge desire to learn and grow to support their employers’ goals. It is amazing to be able to reflect on where I started as a Year Up student to where I am now,” says Susie Mendosa, a business operations analyst at LinkedIn and graduate of the Year Up program.

Accenture conducted a study based on its own IT apprenticeship program and found that 80 percent of students in community college programs feel they “will need more training, beyond their associate degree or certification, to get the job they want.” Of those students, 26 percent listed employer-provided training programs as the top option. Among respondents who say they would like a career in IT, 42 percent say they don’t know how to break into the industry and 27 percent say they don’t have the right access. Creating or partnering with an apprenticeship program will not only bring that access to these workers, but it can also help your organization recruit diverse talent while filling specific IT skills gaps at the same time.

Apprenticeships are also good for retention. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 91 percent of apprentices that complete an apprenticeship are still employed nine months later. And it’s lucrative for the apprentices too. The study found that apprentices who complete their program earn approximately $300,000 more during their career than non-apprenticeship workers.

Build networks, community and mentorship opportunities

Apprenticeships are often filled by candidates who are new to the corporate world or IT industry. It’s important to create a sense of community for your apprentices, past and present, so they feel supported and understood during the process. Consider pairing new apprentices with someone in your organization who went through the program themselves. That way apprentices have a point-person to talk to if they have questions unique to the program.

“Accenture paired me with a ‘buddy’ who went through the program in a previous year and offered lots of great advice. It’s also very easy to find mentorship opportunities within the company. My current project lead actually used to be my mentor during my apprenticeship, and she continues to help me guide my career,” says Joan Taylor, a software engineering analyst at Accenture in Chicago who went through Accenture’s IT apprenticeship program.

Mentorship is key career progress, so giving apprentices access to mentorship programs is valuable, especially if they will be joining your organization full-time once the apprenticeship ends. And giving apprentices a platform to connect with one another can foster a sense of community and give them a jump start on creating a professional network.  

“We all support each other, even after the program is technically over. I mentor a few of the Year Up interns and new JPMC employees now. We also have an alumni association, in which I am the vice president, where we coordinate events and outreaches to help our alumni throughout their career journey,” says Taylor Brown, a software developer at JPMorgan Chase who completed the Year Up program.

Soft skills are just as important as hard skills

Apprentices will need to be trained up on the right technical skills for whatever IT job they’re placed into. But soft-skills training is just as important, especially if your apprentices haven’t worked in a corporate environment before. Make sure your apprentices feel comfortable and understand the company culture, dress codes and anything specific to your organization’s culture that would be important for them to know going into their apprenticeship.

“Honestly, never working for a corporate company, I had no idea what to expect. From day one, I was filled with excitement, but I was also nervous. Year Up gave me the foundation so I knew what I would be doing, and LinkedIn gave me the actual experience to apply what I learned and continue to build on it. I was able to build on both my technical expertise for the role and grow the soft skills I’d learned along the way,” says Mendosa.

Accenture starts every apprenticeship program with an informational panel discussion in which former apprentices share their experiences with new apprentices, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about what to expect. Year Up has a similar strategy, along with conducting training and information sessions on appropriate work attire, business etiquette and everything they will need to know about navigating a corporate environment.

Support apprentices through the process

Apprenticeship programs can help improve the upward mobility of underrepresented talent in IT. Year Up’s apprenticeship-style program focuses on connecting underprivileged young adults with the opportunity to get trained and upskilled for IT jobs, in addition to other industries. The program involves six months of training, followed by a six-month internship experience that includes on-the-job training. The program forgoes the traditional undergraduate and internship experience and helps fast-track talented, qualified young adults into IT careers.

As is the case with many of the apprentices in the Year Up program, they won’t always have the luxury of taking time off to complete the program the way traditional interns often do. Candidates for apprenticeships will most likely have to work around other responsibilities such as a part-time job or family duties, or they may have financial hardships that need to be considered. In some instances, if you plan to recruit diverse talent from non-traditional backgrounds, you’ll need to consider what type of support they might need.

LinkedIn’s Mendosa says the support offered through her IT training program with Year Up was one of the key elements to her success. She was juggling care for her young child and a part-time job as a chiropractic assistant while she completed the year-long program. But in working with the program and her corporate sponsor, she was able to complete the program around her packed schedule in order to graduate.

“The program is both a learning curve for IT knowledge and personal development. Entering the program, it’s important to be vulnerable in understanding your current situation or hardships in life, and your plan on being able to move forward with the challenges you may need to overcome,” Mendosa says.

Offer meaningful work

Internships offer valuable experience for interns, but realistically they aren’t with your company long enough to work on many meaningful projects. Apprenticeships allow for organizations to immediately get workers involved in current projects that need more support. It’s mutually beneficial in that workers can get paid and trained in real-life work scenarios, while companies benefit from having a full-time worker who can be trained on specific skills that need to be filled and who can be seamlessly integrated into the IT department once the apprenticeship ends.

“There’s a lot of in-class, on-the-job and online learning and training resources available to apprentices. Also, the job roles we are placed into have a real impact on the Accenture business. We’re encouraged to ‘own our career’ instead of letting others tell us which path to follow,” says Accenture’s Taylor.

Don’t treat your apprentices like interns — they should be involved in more than busy work. Engage your apprentices in meaningful work early on. They’ll not only get valuable hands-on experience, but it can offer insights that aren’t available in school or training classes.

“My colleagues were patient with me and trained me on the job with meaningful projects that were challenging but not overwhelming. Knowing it was the direction I wanted to go in, my manager also set me up with a software development project that is closely tied to my day-to-day role,” Taylor says. “I ended up working on two substantial assignments for a while, which was quite an intense but great experience. It gave me a unique opportunity to intimately understand the needs of the team and helped me build software solutions that better support them.”