Why Does Tech Shun Apprenticeships?

Apprenticeship models have been a key talent generation strategy in various industries for years, and they work: In Sept. 2020, the Labor Department reported that 94% of people who graduated from apprenticeship programs retained employment with an average annual salary of $70,000.

The Labor Department continually reports something else — that an overwhelming number of job vacancies continue to plague many industries. Indeed, it’s no secret that HR professionals are struggling to fill vacant roles as the competition for great candidates remains high. And even though apprenticeships are often a great way to secure talent, one industry continues to eschew them: technology.

Just 1% of all available apprenticeships are in the technology sector. Yet a talent shortage for nearly every IT function has prevailed for years. So why is tech, a sector obviously in great need of successful talent acquisition strategies, reluctant to embrace apprenticeship programs that have worked so well in other fields?

The Tech Perspective on Apprenticing

The answer comes down to a combination of factors, most of which emerge from ideas that have been entrenched in the industry for years. 

One is the belief that candidates need four-year degrees to succeed in technology roles. But resources for learning outside of traditional college or university pathways have become more prevalent in recent years, and many people, especially digital natives, have taught themselves valuable tech skills. Apprenticeship models could build candidates’ skills from a solid foundation of self-taught knowledge to match a tech company’s exact needs.

On the flip side, there’s also the idea that so many technologists today are self-taught. Chief Strategy Officer Ross A. McIntyre of custom software and business innovation consulting firm Frogslayer recognized this when his business crafted its unique internship program.

“Many developers are autodidacts, and that can lead to a parsimoniousness with knowledge,” he said. They might wonder: If they could teach themselves everything they need to know, why can’t other candidates?

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He also explained that many future-forward companies view the concept of apprenticing as too antiquated to spur innovation today. Apprenticeship programs tend to focus on specific skills, which can be valuable in plugging certain skills gaps within companies, but some companies need broader thinkers who can wear multiple hats. Frogslayer’s internship model, which just launched in summer 2021, allows interns to carry a product or service as far as they can across 10 weeks, giving them exposure to every discipline from strategy to quality assurance.“There was a lot of deliberateness to the construction of the program curriculum to maximize what we learn about our interns in order to help them identify what they would like to know and from whom they wish to learn,” McIntyre said.

Another hindrance to apprenticeships in tech involves a lack of support and infrastructure required to develop junior talent. Successful apprenticeships require mentoring, pair programming, and human and financial investment. That’s a tough pill to swallow for companies worried about their bottom lines above all else.Often, it takes at least 90 days for an apprentice to provide a productivity return on investment. That means tech organizations’ efficiency levels could wane for three months. Many small and large enterprises aren’t willing to be patient. Or they might not have the people power to throw into apprenticeships. 

For example, when Express Scripts needed COBOL mainframe programmers, it hired a cohort of junior-level apprentice programmers. But it didn’t move forward without some hesitancy.

One executive expressed initial concerns: “The sheer number of people coming into the organization [from the apprenticeship program] was almost half of the population that we had. How are we going to deal with all these people? How are we going to get them all trained? And how are we going to be able to dedicate time [to develop junior talent] and still be able to get our work done?”

Because the industry at large has traditionally eschewed apprenticeship models, most companies lack the adequate structure to efficiently train new hires. But as many tech companies still struggle to fill critical vacant roles, building the infrastructure to support apprenticeships or other skilling initiatives for new hires from the ground up might soon be a pressing priority.

Lori Eaton is the senior vice president of company relations for LaunchCode, a nonprofit aiming to fill the gap in tech skills by matching companies with trained individuals. As one of the winners of the 2017 MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, LaunchCode has been recognized for expanding “the tech workforce by providing free coding education to disadvantaged job seekers.” In her role, Lori is dedicated to helping individuals gain access to technology careers and upward mobility by partnering with business leaders to achieve recruitment and workforce development initiatives.

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