Apprenticeships and Tech Talent: Try Before You Buy

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Okay, why don’t more companies use the apprenticeship training model? Seriously, it seems like an ideal solution to the lack of skilled talent issue that seems to perennially plague the tech industry.

Apprenticeships – paid training-centric positions that are part job, part school – also have a ton of talent management benefits. For instance, they allow an organization to recruit from a larger pool of talent. Many companies are limited in their talent choices because the schools or companies they frequent or poach from only turn out a set number of people in a given time period. Opening the talent pool to those who have natural talent and a keen interest in learning a new skill increases its depth exponentially, and it increases the chance that the company’s workforce will mirror its customer base. Let’s face it, the tech industry is overwhelmingly white and male in hue and gender, and that’s not exactly a global consumer image.

I ran into an article on Fast Company that discussed how companies like Pinterest, Airbnb, LinkedIn and Visa are using apprenticeship programs to train nontraditional tech talent. “Pinterest launched its apprenticeship program in early 2016 to widen the 1,200-person company’s access to self-taught coders, coding bootcamp grads and others who may not have had the advantage of attending top schools or working at brand-name businesses.”

What struck me about the article was the candidates aren’t given an easy entry into these positions. Instead, it’s like a rigorous competition for a few coveted slots. Candidates at Pinterest have to showcase their knowledge of coding and software architecture for a full day. For LinkedIn’s “REACH” program participants have to submit a portfolio software project, do take home work and get through in-person interviews. Then they’re given a six-month gig at the company, and that’s not a guarantee that they’ll be hired full time.

Apprenticeships also offer learning and talent leaders a much needed boost in workforce engagement and retention. They say explicitly: “We want you to stay, and we want you to do well, so we’re investing in your development.” Wouldn’t you be more inclined to stay at a company like that? I would.

According to research from Willis Towers Watson, more than 70 percent of high-retention-risk employees say they’ll have to leave their organization to advance their career. Tech talent is definitely in the high-retention-risk category. So, if they perceive or hit a career block, these days, most are savvy enough to market themselves in greener pastures. But if you could offer skilled, career-minded individuals the opportunity to enhance their skill set internally and then use that learning to take on new assignments and projects? That’s a win-win.

Apprenticeships used to be relegated to manufacturing and service industries. But they work well as a training delivery system in companies of all kinds because they offer the perfect setting for engineers and developers to learn – on the job. Developers don’t like to sit in lectures. They prefer labs and working on project-based learning activities in small groups. So, outside of training classes that mimic this type of environment, apprenticeships are a perfect vehicle with which to develop the right technical talent for your organization.

Pinterest and LinkedIn each offer apprentices dedicated coaching time, close proximity to managers, peers, buddies and mentors who train separately for their role. Mentorship is a big commitment as it could take up to 50 percent of an engineer’s time. But it’s important that apprentices feel a sense of belonging and have the opportunity to learn casually as well as formally, in team meetings and discussions. Visa University offers learning labs, shadowing programs and holds monthly discussions to gauge performance.

There’s something to be said for attacking a problem from a different angle. If lack of talent is the problem, why not use apprenticeships – a learning model that has been in existence basically forever – to find solutions? In that Fast Company article Pinterest Diversity Chief Candice Morgan said the company can approach design and user experience differently thanks to its apprentices’ non-traditional backgrounds.

So, we’ve got higher rates of inclusion and performance, increased retention rates, more recruiting options, and the hands-on training benefits go without saying. Yeah, I don’t understand why more companies don’t use the apprenticeship learning model.