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Technology apprenticeships: A hedge against the hiring hustle

There’s a reason—actually, many reasons—that skilled trades have used the apprenticeship system for hundreds of years.

Technology apprenticeships: A hedge against the hiring hustle
[Source Photo: Le Wagon/Unsplash]
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As every executive knows, recruiting and hiring are among the hardest things we do. This is especially true at technology companies, where a special mix of skills, experience, and personality is needed for applicants to succeed. Searches that should take weeks routinely stretch into months. But there is a hedge: I learned years ago that smart companies don’t just search for capable employees; they create them.

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Apprenticeships allow almost any company to mint a pipeline of well-trained, entry-level technology employees. They increase the talent pool, reduce hiring time, promote diversity, and allow a company to quickly generate needed capabilities.

There’s a reason—actually, many reasons—that skilled trades have used the apprenticeship system for hundreds of years.

BUILDING A PROGRAM

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A few years in, I had an idea that tracked back to my days in the education space. When I was working for the mayor in Washington, D.C., there was an administrator who created an inspiring internship program. More than just a feel-good exercise, the program made real change. Students got exceptional training. The department got a substantial productivity boost. I wondered whether this could be replicated in a SaaS company.

We did some research, met with some organizations, and created a pilot program in the summer of 2014. Over the years, a program that started as an internship evolved. We wrote a curriculum, established mentoring, and set expectations. All apprentices were paid and worked full schedules right next to our full-time personnel. We stopped treating apprentices like interns. We started treating them like staff.

On an annual basis—the program eventually went year-round—we spent what it would cost to fund a large internship program. But six years and more than 100 program graduates later, it’s clear to me that the bigger expenditure was paid in time. It took time for leadership to build a program and adjust it until it worked. It took time for managers to train and mentor apprentices on the job every day.

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Here’s what we learned along the way.

THE BENEFITS OF APPRENTICESHIP

• You’ll build roots in your community.

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To attract applicants, you’ll likely need relationships with local colleges, universities, and government agencies. Over time, these connections can provide a steady stream of talent. For example, we partnered with organizations like the Economic Club of Washington and leveraged their scholarship programs, inviting some of their scholars to enter our apprenticeships.

• You’ll learn about your needs.

We quickly realized that not every job required a four-year degree. In recent years, we have seen the birth of “new collar” jobs, from cybersecurity to digital design, that don’t require traditional tech degrees. These roles offer trained employees starting salaries that are often triple the minimum wage. They create a career path that promises job security and opportunities for advancement. This can open your eyes to a whole new group of people you may have overlooked in the past but who are eager for tech training. In our experience, some of our biggest success stories come from this group.

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• You’ll increase your talent pool.

An apprenticeship program can draw thousands of resumes from all over the globe. Instead of going into the world and looking for talent, the talent comes to you.

• You’ll be able to tailor your pipeline.

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A sizable training program allows you to train people for the roles you need.

• You’ll expedite hiring.

Once the program is up and running, you may be able to cut down the time it takes to fill positions because you have a consistent pool of qualified applicants, whether they are still in the program or have already graduated. Hiring this way can also remove a great deal of risk. When you hire an apprentice, you know they are trained, and you already know them well.

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• You’ll see increased productivity.

Our apprenticeship program put a large number of additional people in the building. They brought energy, enthusiasm, new ideas, and fresh eyes. They also represented a resource that we could deploy to launch new initiatives, complete ongoing projects, or free up more qualified personnel to take on new challenges.

• You’ll develop your company’s culture.

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The apprenticeship program should champion values such as a strong work ethic, collaboration, mentoring, and giving back to others. When you hire from the program, you gain employees who spent months immersed in your way of doing business. Apprentices will also contribute their own valuable experience, which will often be very different from that of your staff.

• You’ll increase company diversity.

As we grew more sophisticated, we learned more about the U.S. visa system to recruit globally. This was not just performative. Hiring a wide range of people cultivates a diversity of mind because people who come from different backgrounds contribute from their own unique outlooks. Over time, that becomes a major advantage, providing a brain trust that your competitors simply do not have.

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Perhaps most importantly, with an apprenticeship program, you will expand opportunities and provide much-needed training to people who are looking to gain skills and join a growing industry. And in my opinion, any time you can offer people learning opportunities and pay them to do it, that’s a win.


Dr. Ximena Hartsock co-founded Phone2Action advocacy software. She is now building a technology that facilitates apprenticeships.