by Bob Violino

IT apprenticeships: Best practices for onboarding overlooked talent

Dec 04, 201914 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

IT leaders share their experiences and tips for launching apprenticeship programs that successfully bridge the IT skills gap.

apprentice mentor job training internship women collaborating at computer by gilaxia getty images
Credit: gilaxia / Getty Images

The shortage of skilled technology professionals is a big challenge for IT. One possible solution: Taking advantage of apprenticeship programs aimed at preparing students and workers from non-IT fields for technology careers.

A study by professional services firm Accenture released in October 2019 notes that community college students can help offset the nation’s technology talent shortage via apprentice programs.

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In its survey of 1,000 community college students and 200 community college counselors, Accenture found that a majority of students (59%) aspire to pursue in-demand technology professions such as application developer, programmer, and cybersecurity analyst.

But students want help from employer-driven programs, including apprenticeships, to prepare for and break into careers in technology, the report says. Students and counselors alike rank apprenticeship programs as one of the best pathways to in-demand jobs.

The survey found that nearly three-quarters of students who participated in apprentice programs (71%) said their experience led them to a better job.

The advantages of apprenticeship programs

Accenture itself was an early adopter of apprenticeships, piloting a program in 2016 that has since scaled to include 450 apprentices across 20 U.S. cities. The firm is calling on employers across the country to jump-start apprentice programs within their own organizations, publishing a “national apprentice playbook” to help organizations create apprenticeship programs.

Accenture’s apprentice program combines on-the-job training with supplementary education to prepare individuals for jobs in in-demand fields such as cybersecurity, application development, data analytics, and programming. The vast majority of apprentices who have completed the program have been hired into full-time jobs at the firm.

“Apprentice programs can help address the skills gap facing most companies, provide greater opportunity to underserved communities, and re-skill those whose jobs have been — or will be — disrupted by technology,” says Pallavi Verma, U.S. Midwest senior managing director and national apprenticeship lead at Accenture.

“Apprentice programs are advantageous for both employers and workers,” Verma says. “They help employers unlock new pools of talent while also creating new career pathways for talented individuals who may not have a four-year college degree.”

Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at O.C. Tanner, a company that offers employee recognition and reward services, worked with local government, education, and nonprofit leaders in Utah to form a statewide apprenticeship program. Over the past five years, about 40 people have completed the program and secured jobs in the technology sector through O.C. Tanner alone.

“There are a number of advantages to an IT apprenticeship program,” Nickolaisen says. “First, it expands the pool of available IT talent by attracting non-traditional IT students. For such students, the idea of pursuing a formal college degree might be a challenge.”

But if an individual can achieve some level of IT competence and then rely on a formal apprenticeship to polish their skills, a career in IT can become a reality, Nickolaisen says.

A second advantage of apprenticeships is that they allow people who might have initially pursued education in IT but then chose a different path to return to IT. And a third is that they provide a mechanism for the apprenticeship company to formalize an IT training program that it can then use to upgrade the skills of other employees.

Apprenticeship programs in action

Global software consultancy ThoughtWorks several years ago realized that its hiring strategy — mainly tapping graduates from engineering colleges — was ignoring a set of people that lacked the opportunities and the means to acquire the needed educational qualifications for jobs in technology.

In 2011, the firm’s India campus began to hire interns from vocational colleges that offer two-year to three-year programs in the trades, similar to an associate degree in many parts of the world, and its Software Technology Excellence Programme (STEP) came into being.

STEP is designed to help train and fill technology positions in the company. It’s a 20-month-long, intensive entry-level program that follows a “work while you study” methodology that offers students the chance to learn theory and apply it as they work. Students partake in lectures, practical sessions, case studies, and group discussions to support their entrance into the technology field.

“STEP interns do this work alongside some of the brightest minds in the industry and learn from accomplished faculty from academia,” says Chris Murphy, CEO for North America at the firm.

Those in the program are paid a stipend and the company also pays the cost of tuition to earn a bachelor’s degree. Upon completion of the program, participants become members of the company’s professional services team and continue their work on projects across India.

The program “allows us to address more holistic skill sets required from a successful consultant than we would get from a typical graduate process,” Murphy says. “This allows the [apprentices] completing the program to adjust and fit in far better than those who don’t go through such programs.”

The rigor of the program over two years forges bonds that no short-term training program can provide, Murphy says. “The peer groups that arise out of this not only ensure a great network, but also a far more shared culture that contributes to high employee retention and satisfaction,” he says. For example, the retention rates among those who have graduated the program is greater than 90 percent.

At technology services provider Computer Aid Inc. (CAI), IT apprenticeship programs are a critical part of the business growth strategy, says Rob Rishel, executive director of the ServiceNow practice at the firm.

The company has partnered with Tech Impact, a nonprofit organization that provides technology education and training programs designed to help young adults launch technology careers, by participating in its IT Works program.

IT Works is a free 16-week training course offered to adults aged 18 to 26 who graduated high school but didn’t graduate or go on to college. The first 11 weeks are spent learning about PC hardware, troubleshooting, IT networking, and security. Following that all students do a hands-on, five-week apprenticeship.

“This program provides high-quality skills resources in relatively short order,” Rishel says. The advantages include having resources come into CAI on the first day with the technical skills needed. This helps reduce the company’s overall on-boarding investment and allows workers to deliver value to the company much more quickly than traditional routes, he says.

Computer Aid works with Tech Impact to select several students as candidates for apprenticeships. “This is important to allow for CAI to evaluate the capabilities of the prospective employee, while allowing the student to feel comfortable that CAI is the right employer for them,” Rishel says.

Colleges and universities can play a big role in apprenticeship efforts.

Clemson University trains and employs students on multiple fronts in IT, offering them insights into “real-world practical settings,” says Russell Kaurloto, vice president and CIO. The university has launched a number of efforts aimed at boosting IT careers, including a digital literacy program that targets students in all academic areas.

“Most forget that universities are similar to small — sometimes large — cities with a technology infrastructure” on par with large enterprises, Kaurloto says. For example, Clemson hires students to work with its cybersecurity team and security operations center, giving them real-world experience.

“They get to see firsthand what cybersecurity and threats are all about and take part in the discovery and the remediation processes,” Kaurloto says. “And for us, what better way to understand the changing cybersecurity landscape than to have a student who’s driving the changing landscape working in our own department.”

Another example is in mobile application development, where the university offers a paid internship for students who have an interest in mobile development. Recently it embarked on a digital access initiative where students can use their iPhones or Apple Watches for key card access. Students worked with Apple on mobile development in iOS.

“This is where student involvement was key,” Kaurloto says. “Not only did we find really good developers, which gave them great cutting-edge experience. But they were able to convey the use cases [and] student behavior and assist in the user interface. It’s like a having a startup team mentality without the high risk.” After students graduate they might have an opportunity to work within IT at the university, he says.

Apprenticeship programs can be especially helpful for filling niche or difficult-to-recruit positions, says Lea Eriksen, director of technology and innovation and CIO for the City of Long Beach, Calif.

The city’s Technology and Innovation Department goes to several recruitment events each year, which has helped it to increase visibility on college campuses and promote the city as a potential future employer to students and recent graduates, Eriksen says.

This past summer Long Beach was able to recruit and maintain students who have worked on projects such as cybersecurity, smart cities, digital inclusion, and web development.

Addressing challenges

Creating and using an apprenticeship program comes with a set of potential challenges.

“Building and running such a program is not easy,” Nickolaisen says. “It requires the organization running the program to allocate the ‘masters’ who will guide and teach the apprentices. This takes a portion of the masters’ time and so the master will not be able to do as much direct IT work.”

Indeed, the biggest challenge the City of Long Beach has faced with apprenticeships is finding available staff to serve as supervisors or mentors. “Employees have their own workloads, and to find those willing to take on an additional staff member to train and mentor can be difficult,” Eriksen says.

Good mentors and trainers are generally in short supply, Murphy says. ThoughtWorks’ STEP has run with the same two or three core mentors for the past seven years. “While this has no doubt brought advantages, it also places a significant strain on the company and the individuals running it,” he says.

The 20-month period for STEP is a long cycle, Murphy adds. “This cannot be significantly shortened, since we hire people who aren’t necessarily from technical backgrounds,” he says. “While the long cycle has benefits, it also has an implication on the investment, both financially and emotionally.”

Also, finding good candidates for programs can be a time-consuming effort. “Last year, our STEP program had 19,000 applicants for a 50-person program,” Murphy says. “We eventually end up interviewing around 700 candidates to find the ones we feel we can train and fit in.”

At times, the apprentices are not yet ready for the workplace, Nickolaisen says. “This could be due to a lack of technical skills — although the certification should resolve most of that — or because the person lacks basic job skills,” he says. “At times, we might not be prepared to provide life/job skill training as part of the apprenticeship.”

O.C. Tanner puts its potential apprentices through a complete and thorough interviewing process to make sure they are ready for the rigors of an IT career. Even so, “when someone completes the apprenticeship process, you might not have a place for them in your organization and so you have to then take on the role of helping them find an IT job with another organization,” Nickolaisen says.

Best practices of successful apprenticeship programs

O.C. Tanner’s Nickolaisen, ThoughtWorks’ Murphy, and Long Beach’s Eriksen offer tips for organizations looking to establish an apprenticeship program.

Have a structured process. “For each role we defined a set of skills the apprentices will have when they complete their program,” Nickolaisen says. “We use this to track their progress and ensure they develop a consistent and meaningful set of skills.”

Incorporate feedback. In the early days of O.C. Tanner’s program, the company ended each apprenticeship cycle by asking what went well and what needed to change. “By making such changes, we have developed something of an apprentice machine,” Nickolaisen says. “We still ask ourselves what went well and what needs to change, but our process is smooth and effective.”

Look for candidates outside the usual channels. Companies should seek talent in smaller cities or relax certain technical entrance requirements and provide the support needed to bridge the gap later, Murphy says. “This approach can result in a significant competitive advantage to the company, through the acquisition of talent that others cannot reach [or] find, increasing diversity and loyalty and lower attrition rates,” he says.

Be willing to invest. High-value apprenticeships require proper institutional investment and focus, Murphy says. That includes having programs of a significant duration; high-quality, dedicated mentors and trainers; and a structured mix of formal and informal education and practical training.

“Organizations [that] are not willing to commit this level of investment and focus might find themselves better off not undertaking the program at all,” Murphy says.

“The mentorship portion is critical, so find out early who your great mentors are,” Nickolaisen says.

Reach out. Maintain a presence at local colleges and universities, and build relationships with coordinators and staff, Eriksen says.

“The more recruitment events we have done at our local university, the more brand awareness we were able to create, displaying to students and potential employees that we are a local employer with lots to offer,” says Eriksen, who also recommends connecting with nonprofit organizations that focus on women and under-represented talent in technology.

Get personal. The requirements of each apprentice are different, particularly when a company is recruiting from a diverse and atypical recruiting pool. Apprenticeship programs should understand this upfront, Murphy says, and build in an appropriate level of personalized assessment, training, and mentoring to fully take advantage of the abilities of diverse participants.

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