Washington Tech Industry Plans Software Apprenticeship Program

Washington state’s tech industry is undertaking another novel effort to grow its local talent pipeline with an apprenticeship program for would-be software developers.

The Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) says a $3.5 million federal grant will help it create what it calls a first-of-its-kind registered apprenticeship program that aims to train 600 people over the next five years. Participants would pay tuition for three to four months of pre-apprenticeship training and then be placed with an employer such as Microsoft, Accenture, F5 Networks, or Impinj for a paid apprenticeship lasting 12 to 18 months. Organizers hope that will lead to a permanent position.

The problems WTIA and its partners are trying to solve are by now familiar: “We create jobs way faster than we can create people qualified to take the jobs, at least in this state,” WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler says.

The state’s booming tech industry needs an estimated 3,500 new employees each year with a computer science degree, but Washington’s higher education system turns out only about 500. The net effect is that Washington is the top recruiting state of computer science talent, according to the WTIA.

Meanwhile, the tech workforce, particularly in software development and project management positions, is overwhelmingly white and male. The WTIA says fewer than 20 percent of those jobs are held by women, and fewer than 1 percent are held by African-Americans or Hispanics.

Tech industry and education leaders in Washington are well aware of the problems, and have begun addressing them at multiple levels. A few recent examples: The Legislature this year approved funding to train K-12 teachers in computer science education. Microsoft, its former CEO Steve Ballmer, and tech investor Gary Rubens contributed $41 million to a state scholarship program for students from low- to middle-income families pursuing degrees in science, technology, and healthcare. The University of Washington is in the midst of a campaign to expand the capacity of its top-flight computer science program, which earned national recognition earlier this year for increasing the percentage of bachelors degrees earned by women.

Those efforts are important, but it will take time to actually increase the local computer science workforce. “We have an urgent issue right now,” Schutzler says.

Schutzler.

Schutzler.

WTIA leaders believe an apprenticeship program can contribute quickly, providing a non-traditional route into the technology industry, specifically to the high-paying jobs at its heart: software development engineers and technical project managers. The initiative aims to begin training its first cohort of about 20 apprentices in the first quarter of 2016.

Schutzler says an apprenticeship model is inherent in the software development profession already.

“When you graduate from college—even if you graduate from UW or MIT or Stanford—basically what you know is some mechanics about coding,” he says. “You may have some good experience doing some cool stuff, but you don’t know anything until you work on a team and start solving really complex problems.”

It typically takes three to five years of focused work with the guidance of mentors to reach something akin to a journeyman level of proficiency, Schutzler says.

With its apprenticeship program, the WTIA is creating “an on-boarding mechanism for people who want to enter the profession that’s actually structured deliberately,” he says.

Candidates will begin with a series of assessments to gauge their potential to learn computer science fundamentals. Next is a pre-apprenticeship training, which Schutzler estimates will cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per person. The training will follow existing certificate programs, such as those developed by Microsoft for military veterans transitioning to new careers in tech. (Schutzler says the WTIA is lining up private foundation support for scholarships.)

Like traditional apprenticeships in the building trades and manufacturing, the WTIA software development apprenticeship will be registered with the state and governed by a committee that includes professionals working in the field, recruiters, and people experienced running other apprenticeship programs.

And like other early and mid-career software development training programs (Code Fellows, the Ada Developers Academy), the WTIA apprenticeship is geared toward people who have already demonstrated some technical aptitude, say through earning a degree in math or science or leading technical projects in the military, for example. But Schutzler says the WTIA is also working to identify candidates from other backgrounds, using assessment tools to gauge things like an individual’s algorithmic problem-solving ability.

The WTIA received $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to create the apprenticeship program, as part of a broader federal initiative.

In the long term, Schutzler wants the apprenticeship to become largely self-sustaining on the basis of the value he believes it will provide to tech industry employers, who may shell out $40,000 to $100,000 to recruit and relocate a project manager or software developer to Washington.

He expects apprentices to earn at least 50 percent of the average starting salary of a software engineer during training, depending on individual experience—something on the order of $40,000 and up. If that person can then transition to a permanent position, the employer’s savings in hiring costs could be substantial, Schutzler says.

If the apprenticeship reaches its goal of getting 600 people into high-paying software development careers over five years, it’s great for those 600 individuals, “but we barely made a dent in the problem. We’re going to do our best to try to figure out how to scale this up more rapidly,” Schutzler says.

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

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