September 2

“Selling”​ Tech Apprenticeship

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I am a firm believer that “selling” the apprenticeship pattern to corporate America is what is needed to get to critical mass. Slowly we are helping people understand the pattern. UK has been doing this for decades, so we are way behind. But apprenticeship sells itself when people become aware of it for #newcollar careers. The benefits are countless, but because it is relatively new outside of the traditional trade skills it just doesn’t have any momentum here, yet…

Believe it or not when people learn that they can get paid to learn how to code, they apply and do it by the thousands. There is shortage of gritty talent that wants into the ecosystem and would love to work at your company. Making this work at scale means we have to adjust the employer demand side of the equation. Selling change to companies is the bottleneck.

The biggest factor to growing the availability of apprenticeship programs in tech is much more about networking than execution. There is lots of talk about funding, but that isn’t going to grow tech apprenticeship (at least not at the level of current investment). But apprenticeships make financial sense, that is not the issue. We are fighting the status quo.

The organizations that have the most capacity to successfully leverage a tech apprenticeship program are often facing many significant challenges across the org and are struggling to “get their act together” while they scale. Most are large public companies (and not all are in tech but they need it) so they may be constrained by shareholders and short term profits. The companies with capacity aren’t always likely to “take a chance” on innovative talent development programs to address issues that don’t hit the bottom line for years. I get it, we have an uphill battle, but apprenticeship works.

Prime targets: companies that are growing and need to add talent fast. They have 200 employees or more, they are well funded, and they crave talent. They are going to want Sr. Engineers, everyone wants Seniors, but they will not be able to find them. We are at record unemployment so why are we still obsessed on a quick fix talent acquisition play? This is a crack in the door, now have an opportunity to make change happen.

It has been my experience that companies rapidly expanding may have some folks with prior workforce development and apprenticeship experience on the talent acquisition team, but the earn and learn model is not understood well by the engineering, platform, and data teams. The business unit has to be driving the process and HR has to be supportive for this to work. But most engineering managers only know the internship model, and that is nothing like apprenticeship. They have no mental model for ‘earn and learn’ and are not aware of what they are missing out on. And no, this is not just a paid summer internship…

So how do we prime the pump and get more organizations to become fully aware of and leverage apprenticeships?

Part of the problem is changing the mentality from “we need Sr. Engineers” to “let’s invest in some talent today that we can grow into Sr. Engineers.” As the Chinese proverb says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is today”. Orgs that are thinking about launching a tech apprenticeship program to expand the talent pipeline have to lean in at the very beginning and shift thinking around what is needed today. Are they addressing what will set them up for long term success and get the recruiting team off the hamster wheel?

To make this happen you will need to build consensus between hiring managers on engineering teams and HR that talent should enter teams at various skill levels. I think we can all see what is broken, but it takes leadership to setup up and make change. The larger the organization unfortunately the more challenging it is to get through the red tape and the longer it will take to ramp up. I’ve seen teams with strong leadership align and get this done countless times. Apprenticeship is a great solution to tackling diversity issues, retention, and it fundamentally addresses the lack of supply of skilled talent. But it takes some strong effort to get the ball rolling. A few strategies I have found that work well are:

  • Find internal champions that will help you navigate the organization from the inside and serve as allies.
  • Make your model dead simple to explain.
  • Structure your program similar to existing programs that have been successful.
  • Build flexibility across the entire timeline
  • Expect to love your candidates and want to hire all of them at the end.
  • Provide dedicated resources so that you can remove barriers to a pilot.
  • Start small with a pilot and then ramp, expect it to take several years to expand.

It has been a bit disappointing to learn some lessons with out the benefit of this info, but I promise that if you have a solid strategy you will not only establish stronger programs, but you will lay the groundwork for growing the program along side the organization(s).

If you are inside an organization and looking for ways to bring a tech apprenticeship to your company reach out to community based organizations and find a few good potential partners. In 2020 Microsoft had a grant program that funded 50 nonprofits that are doing community based work in STEM. These organizations exist all across America. Organizations like Creating Coding Careers are braking barriers and would be happy to work with your organization. When you make it easy to know you want help and are eager to partner you will be able to find the right fit.

If you are thinking about launching an apprenticeship and need some advice please reach out to me. I’d be happy to help in any way I can. Final thoughts on partners: Be prepared to help them get connected to the right decision makers and influencers within your company. Remember from the outside your internal structure is almost impossible to navigate or understand. That is why networking is so vital. Engineering leaders getting out in the community, forming bonds with providers early on will help ensure that when approval comes, you have the right vendors and you are ready to crush it.

Do you have any thoughts on better ways to get companies to engage? Please share them in the comments. I would love to get more conversations going around how to we help ourselves develop a talent ecosystem that matches the demand in the economy rather than focus on searching for and poaching Sr. Engineers.

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