Washington Apprenticeship Program Opens Doors to Tech Careers

A few years ago while working as a crew leader for a moving company, Shawn Farrow was dreaming of a job in technology.

“We moved a lot of people in the tech industry, so I was able to talk with them and see their way of life,” said Farrow, 30. “It made me decide, yeah, this is the direction I need to go.”

But the path he travelled from there to a first-of-its kind software development apprenticeship in a venture-backed Seattle tech company illustrates just how difficult it can be to break in to one of the 21st century’s most important and well-paying industries—even for someone with a college degree.

The apprenticeship program, Apprenti, is an effort of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) to solve two major challenges facing its member companies: a shortage of skilled workers and the persistent under-representation of women, minorities, and military veterans in its ranks. Backed by some $11 million in federal grants and contracts, and with heavy corporate participation and funding, Apprenti is taking a very old model of workforce development and applying it to tech, both in the Seattle area and, later this year, nationally.

Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Farrow began at Seattle-based legal services marketplace Avvo in late February. As he waited to enter a meeting room at the company’s downtown Seattle headquarters recently, several Avvo employees greeted him by name as they filed out. One invited him to stop by her desk later to pick up some corporate swag. A few steps away, there’s the espresso machine, ping-pong table, snack station, and beer kegs, and beyond that, 14th-floor views of Seattle’s skyline—steadily filling with new office and condo towers to accommodate the growing tech industry.

“The snacks are great,” Farrow allows, but he didn’t gush much about the perks. He’s more excited about the opportunity to work with the “super smart” people on his new team at Avvo and dig into the code.

After coming to the realization that he’d “pretty much accomplished everything I need to accomplish at a moving company,” Farrow got serious about pursuing a new career. In 2012, he enrolled in a two-year associates program at Renton Technical College based on Microsoft’s .NET programming framework. He learned a little bit about several programming languages, but not enough to land a job, he says. The one interview he did get was frustrating.

“I was interviewed on stuff that the program didn’t even cover,” he says.

That mismatch underscores the challenge many community and technical colleges face in keeping their curricula current with fast-changing industry needs.

Farrow knew he still needed more skills, but he was reluctant to add to his education debt, mounting from the associate degree and a bachelor’s degree he earned from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Farrow, who is African American, was awarded a diversity scholarship from programming school Code Fellows, which helped him afford two classes there. That led to a contract job at CDK Global, which provides IT and digital marketing services to car dealerships, as a “Web-design specialist.” He spent his days using a tool to migrate dealer Web sites from an old platform to a new one. It was a good first step, but not quite the tech career he had imagined.

“I wasn’t working with the code,” Farrow says.

That’s when he heard about Apprenti.

Apprenticeship Model

The WTIA won a $3.5 million Department of Labor grant in fall 2015 to create a state-registered apprenticeship program, designed in close collaboration with local tech employers. The WTIA aims to help at least 600 people into the Washington tech industry by 2020 through Apprenti, which began accepting applications last fall. Would-be apprentices take aptitude tests and undergo classroom training before being placed in a year-long paid apprenticeship with a tech employer.

The industry has for several years recognized the shortcomings of its hiring models, both in satisfying its own growing demands for talent, and for bringing in people from all walks of life.

“We as an industry have looked very myopically at our hiring requirements,” says Apprenti executive director Jennifer Carlson. Too often, tech employers require applicants to have not just a four-year STEM degree, but specifically a computer science degree. “While that has created a really strong workforce for us, it has also really limited not only the diversity side, but has left us in position where at any given moment just the state of Washington has 7,000 to 8,000 positions unfilled,” she says.

The state’s four-year universities are in the midst of efforts to expand their computer science programs, but they will still produce only a fraction of the graduates the industry needs.

New models, many involving partnerships with for-profit code academies, alternative credentialing, and close coordination with specific employers, have sprung up in recent years to fill the gap. Some have specific diversity goals.

Beyond the broad societal benefits of increasing access to a high-paying, powerful career, it’s important to review the industry’s motivations for diversifying its workforce.

“I’ve been in the tech industry for 25 years and we have always been exceedingly poor at actually having diversity within the industry, and I think that is becoming more and more apparent as we put out products that are really tailored for white men in their 20s and early 30s,” says Avvo CTO Kevin Goldsmith. “That’s not the product that we’re building at Avvo. I wanted my team to represent all the different kinds of people that actually need to and want to use our product, because I didn’t want us kind of stuck in that mindset.”

Lots of recent research shows that diverse teams work and perform better, he adds. People of varying backgrounds bring new ideas and opinions.

Goldsmith is involved in Washington STEM, which focuses on improving science, technology, engineering, and math education for girls in middle and high school, and other efforts to fix “the pipeline problem”—the idea that women and people of color fall off of the tech career path early in their educational journey. As important as that work may be, the industry can’t just keeping waiting on the pipeline, particularly if the goal is to improve diversity among senior leadership, he says.

“It’s too hard to do that if I’m trying to teach middle-school girls how to program, because they won’t be ready to be CTOs for like 30 years,” Goldsmith says.

Programs that help adults transition into the field, such as Apprenti and the Seattle-based Ada Developers Academy, can have a more immediate impact, Goldsmith says. And they tend to attract people who make good employees right away.

Apprenti “finds people who are passionate about technology and wanting to program, but are coming in with a level of maturity and a level of experience… that somebody I would hire straight out of school or even from another tech company isn’t going to come in with,” Goldsmith says.

The apprentice model was touted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last year as a potential tool to address job losses due to the advent of artificial intelligence.

Speaking at last year’s State of Technology Luncheon in Seattle, Nadella talked about the need to improve education at all levels. He said he was impressed with an apprenticeship program under former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and the nascent efforts in Washington state.

“I think that’s something that we should take a very good look at, because it allows people to go from one industry to another, pick up new skills,” Nadella said, adding that the jobs that are being created “require a very different type of skill set” from those being lost.

Program Design

In developing an apprenticeship program for an industry that hasn’t used the model before, at least not in the U.S., the WTIA took input from a range of tech companies, including Microsoft, F5, Accenture, Impinj, and Synapse.

It looked at the full breadth of occupations within the industry and identified those jobs that truly do require a computer science degree. The program is not focused on those positions. Instead, it’s targeting roles such as network security administrators, data analysts, database administrators, and project managers—“strong, living-wage jobs that pay really well across the country, not just in Seattle, but are jobs that may not require a four year degree, may not require a STEM degree, may be a place where we could attract another group of talent to come in and fill the void,” Carlson, the Apprenti executive director, says.

It further identified commonalities of those roles across companies and the core education requirements to perform those tasks. The result is a set of “apprenticeable” jobs.

Apprenticeships are different from other forms of on-the-job training and internships, Carlson says. An apprenticeable job requires no less than a year of training—at least 2,000 hours of dedicated time to a single occupation—and presents the opportunity to grow in competency during training, she says.

“It’s not the kind of job that you walk in and within a matter of a few hours of training, you’re at the level of proficiency you need to be to do the job persistently going forward,” she says.

Think network administrator versus installation technician. Or, in Farrow’s case, Web developer versus Web-design specialist.

Would-be apprentices pass through initial assessments and tests to establish aptitude for the career. As part of the initial 2015 grant, the WTIA set up an online assessment tool to test proficiency in math, logic, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence, with minimum thresholds defined by the industry. Apprenti modeled its screening process on apprentice programs in the math-heavy pipefitting and electrical trades.

People who pass the tests receive a ranking, based on performance, among a pool of candidates.

Additional training, on the apprentice’s own dime or supported with scholarships (training of the initial cohort in Washington was underwritten by a $200,000 grant from JP Morgan Chase), gets them up to a baseline competency to begin on-the-job training for a one-year apprenticeship at an employer. That comes with about 60 percent of the starting salary for the position, plus benefits. Farrow is one of the first three people to begin their on-the-job training. In addition to Avvo, Silicon Mechanics and F5 are hosting apprentices.

The classroom training is provided through established code schools offering classes that respond to industry needs such as Code Fellows and Galvanize, as well as Northeastern University and certified corporate training programs. Apprenti doesn’t develop any new or proprietary curriculum on its own.

“That allows us to be nimble as things change in the marketplace, and adapt to whichever system, training partner, or academy is delivering what needs to be done,” Carlson says.

As Farrow’s experience shows, one of the biggest challenges for people trying to transition into tech is paying for the training, while also supporting themselves. Carlson says the value of the training is approximately $15,000 per apprentice.

The funding from JPMorgan was essential for Farrow. He couldn’t afford to complete a final Code Fellows course required for Apprenti without it.

“It is probably our greatest concern,” Carlson says of the cost to apprentices. “We don’t have a perfect solution.”

Veterans can use the GI Bill for education and living expenses. In Washington, people who have been employed during the previous 15 months can receive unemployment benefits if they quit a job to undertake a registered apprenticeship program.

Apprenti is also working with workforce development councils to pursue federal benefits and subsidies available to those who are eligible.

Apprenti continues seeking additional underwriting support to defray the costs of training. It also is asking the hiring companies to consider taking on that expense.

“They want to see the results and the outputs first before making further investments,” Carlson says, noting that they’re already paying the apprentice’s salaries and providing training.

Mentorship

The apprenticeship model has so far been easy to implement at Avvo, which last fall began a mentorship program for existing employees, Goldsmith says. Indeed, the basic premise of an apprenticeship—junior software developers receiving on-the-job training from their more experienced colleagues—is already a regular feature of the tech industry at many companies, whether formally or informally.

Avvo CTO Kevin Goldsmith and Web development apprentice Shawn Farrow. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Goldsmith says Farrow and other apprentices will get extra support, but will also be expected to be productive.

“We’re expecting Shawn to get some stuff done,” Goldsmith says, looking across the table at Farrow. “You’re here for a year. Yeah, it’s going to take you a little while to catch up, but then, we’re going to expect you to be a full contributing member of a team.”

National Rollout

Last fall, Apprenti won a $7.5 million Department of Labor contract to replicate the model in other markets.

Carlson says a handful of companies have committed to the program elsewhere and will be working on validating what the WTIA has done in Washington. She won’t identify the markets or participating companies yet, but says the first program outside of Washington is on track to begin training apprentices in late spring.

The initial target for the national rollout is 250 registered tech apprenticeships in 2017, and 450 a year beginning in 2018.

In an odd twist, the Department of Labor funding comes from fees employers pay for the H1-B Visa program, which many tech employers use to supplement their workforces. Like all immigration programs, the H1-B program faces an uncertain future under the Trump administration. Carlson sees no imminent changes in 2018, but says Apprenti is working toward a funding model that would eventually wean it from federal support.

“Being a self-sustaining program has been a top objective of the program from the start,” she says.

More apprentices in Washington are on their way this spring, finishing classroom training and interviews, and preparing for placement with other employers, including Microsoft and Amazon, Carlson says.

Goldsmith came to Avvo from Spotify, where he had wanted to implement a similar apprenticeship program. He says Apprenti’s longevity will depend on providing employers with candidates like Farrow, who have demonstrated strong technical aptitude through “a pretty tough filtering process.” Avvo interviewed four apprentices and wanted to hire them all, he says.

“If they continue to bring that caliber of folks through the program, I don’t think there’s going to be any problem at all with them being successful,” he says.

For Farrow, meanwhile, persistence in pursuing a tech career is paying off. He was raised in Lakewood, WA, south of Tacoma, dreaming of becoming a pro athlete, “just like every other kid growing up in a low-income area,” he says.

“I would’ve never imagined to be in a place like this,” Farrow says. “It’s huge. I can’t really put into words what this means.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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