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Apprenticeship Emerging To Fill Skills Gaps

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A mentor and apprentice at a CoderGirl event. CoderGirl, created by LaunchCode, offers free weekly meetings meant to bring women with an interest in computer programming together with female mentors who can guide them.

A number of technology apprenticeship programs offer alternatives to university degrees for practical computer science education.

Credit: LaunchCode

Whether there exists a global shortage of software developers may be open to debate, but technologists on the forefront of discovering new talent say there is definitely a shortage of newly minted computing professionals who are ready to do production-quality work.

While the traditional route of the entry-level developer—obtaining a baccalaureate degree in computer science or a related engineering field—might seem to be the quickest path to the profession, some veterans of the industry say it is vital to re-think how new developers are trained. One such alternative, apprenticeship, might conjure images of guilded craftsmen or construction trades. However, new approaches to apprenticeship are emerging that aim to provide talented, if not traditionally trained, computing professionals around the globe.

"I'm getting a lot of young people who are really smart and know that they know some things but not everything," said Joseph Gianzanti,  Fort Lauderdale, FL-based chief information officer for Insurance Technologies LLC, which develops sales and regulatory automation platforms. "They are willing to listen so we can develop them the way we want them to and teach them to build things the way we want them to build them. They also tend to be a lot hungrier."

Gianzanti is an enthusiastic supporter of the apprenticeship program offered by St. Louis, MO-based LaunchCode. The non-profit, which is funded through a combination of government grants and foundation and private donations, was launched in 2013 by tech entrepreneur Jim McKelvey.

"He was looking for people with the proper computer science background in St. Louis, and he realized that we were in an economy where, when you wanted a programmer, Company A basically stole from Company B, and vice versa," LaunchCode CEO Mark Bauer said. "It was just a fundamental technology talent gap where the supply of candidates wasn't meeting the demand. The whole idea was there has to be a different way, there have to be people who have the aptitude and ability to teach themselves without a four-year computer science degree."

U.S., U.K. programs

While Bauer said LaunchCode has placed an apprentice as young as 16 and one aged 63, most are aged between 25 and 35, and seven out of 10 have a bachelor's degree. Of those seven, only one has a CS degree.

"Just under half were unemployed at the time they came to us," he said. "The ones who did have jobs were making about $20,000 a year and, assuming they got through the apprenticeship and into full-time employment, they ended up making more than $50,000 at that time."

LaunchCode, which had placed 500 apprentices with hiring firms by the end of 2016, now operates in south Florida; Kansas City, KS: Providence, RI; Portland, OR, and Seattle, in addition to St. Louis. Bauer said between 400 and 1,200 people apply for each class, and between 80 and 150 are accepted. After 20 weeks' of instruction, each apprentice then spends an average of 90 days with a company matched to them by LaunchCode, earning about $15 an hour; at the end of the apprenticeship, they can either be hired full-time by their host firm or, as happens less often, find work elsewhere. Bauer said slightly more than 80% of apprentices are hired by the firms at which they apprentice.

"If you think about a company hiring for these positions, it is very easy to say the bar is a four-year computer science degree, because it's an amazingly simple screening criteria," he said. "But we have done all the screening for them, and we find that if you want to talk to a LaunchCode apprenticeship candidate, on average you'll talk to three and pick one of those three. It's an amazing level of efficiency because of the screening that's been done before the employer gets involved."

In the U.K., the apprenticeship program goes further than hiring a majority of university graduates; it creates them while also introducing them to a hiring company's procedures and cultures. The Tech Partnership consortium's degree apprenticeship program, launched in 2015, provides apprentices debt-free and salaried education and training funded by the government and participating business.

Gordon Kent, who helped the Tech Partnership while serving as director of emerging IT talent for Lloyds Banking Group, said the program had support from the very top of the British government from its conceptual inception—it got its start at a brainstorming meeting at the prime minister's offices at 10 Downing St. in London—and places the U.K. ahead of many other national technology training programs, in Kent's view.

"The most innovative thing we did with the program in London was we said they will work four days a week at the company and only one day a week will they be going to classes at the university," Kent said. "The sponsoring company coordinates very carefully with the university. It was challenged by a lot of the universities at first, but we did it."

Kent, a native of Long Island, NY, was so enthusiastic about the potential of apprentice programs that he returned to the U.S. in 2016 and started his own career development consultancy, ProgressiveCareer LLC, to facilitate apprenticeship as part of a viable recruiting stream.

He believes the timing is ripe for his venture. The Obama administration provided more than $200 million under the ApprenticeshipUSA banner to launch apprenticeship programs, and a U.S. Commerce Department/Case Western Reserve University analysis of 13 such programs, including LaunchCode, revealed impressive returns on investment.

While Kent said the funding might be decreased to some extent or shifted elsewhere under the administration of President Donald Trump, he also said supporting apprenticeships thus far appears to be a bipartisan priority.

"There is still great support for the concept," he said. "I think what is lacking very often here is people who know how to make it work, who have the experience of doing an apprenticeship program. The potential is great. There hasn't been much traction yet, but there are a lot of good people working at it. I could spend 100% of my time on an effort like the Tech Partnership's, if all the pieces came together."

Building the development community

No matter the scale of an apprenticeship program, technology executives say in the end the approach is all about finding viable alternatives in building the developer community and adding important new perspectives in the process. Ryan Townsend, chief technology officer of Overland Park, KS-based educational analytics vendor Ad Astra Information Systems, who also praises the LaunchCode program, said planning to train apprentices he has brought in has helped improve the entire development process.

"We have found that they have actually pushed us as much as we have pushed them," Townsend said, "because they are very hungry and want to learn. It's forced us to guide them a little more than we had imagined, but at a higher level. It's not little nuts and bolts, but they ask questions like, 'What does this business do?' People with backgrounds beyond the technical sciences come in more naturally inquisitive about what the business is trying to accomplish, instead of  'What is this little piece of code I'm supposed to write?'"

Townsend said the apprenticeship pipeline is a boon for the region's technology community. "I can compete against other companies all day long and recruit people away, but it's not a net win for the city. This is a pathway that didn't exist a few years ago that actually generates net new talent that otherwise is in a job they're not satisfied with, but they feel trapped because they didn't have that four-year degree."

In Braga, Portugal, web development and design vendor Subvisual has also committed to bringing new blood into the community by bootstrapping a small apprenticeship program on its own. "People are complaining about colleges here in Portugal, but also around the world, that they are not close enough to the industry," Subvisual CEO Roberto Machado said. "I always thought it was also the industry's responsibility to apply some change to do something about that. So we thought apprenticeship could be a good way for people who didn't have a college degree to enter the industry without a lot of experience."

Machado said the 12-person shop has run eight apprentices through its program, which runs about two months, since its inception in 2014. Two are still at Subvisual, while the other six have moved to other companies. Machado said the apprentices are paid enough of a salary during their training to pay rent and basic expenses. Though Subvisual receives no funding for its program, Machado said he thinks of it as a sort of marketing vector.

"We simply think that if that person in the end goes to a different company, that person will take us with them. They will learn how we work, they will talk about us. If we have to find reasons to justify the money we're spending, it's more on the marketing side and making sure the people who do our apprenticeships have a good experience here."

Machado also said Subvisual is in the process of establishing an office in the U.S., in Boston, MA, and intends to bring its apprenticeship program there—people with drive and aptitude need jobs, and the industry needs them, he said.

"A lot of people need to change their career, because jobs will not return to some industries. More and more we need people from different areas to bring their knowledge, mix it with computer science and do different things. That's where the real innovation is happening right now. I hope the new attention apprenticeships are getting will help people shift to the industry, fill the gaps that exist, and also have better lives, because that's what matters in the end."

Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.


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