WTIA’s Apprenti program is turning out skilled tech workers by the dozens, with no tuition costs
Roscoe Bass, an apprentice who recently started at Microsoft, said that he liked the Apprenti training program so well that “I’ve tried to be the first person at school and the last person to leave every day of the program.” (Roscoe Bass Photo)

Roscoe Bass could easily have been passed over by the technology industry.

“I don’t have much history in tech,” said the 35-year-old Shoreline, Wash., resident. “Before this, I was a boxing coach.”

Bass served in the military after high school, and was plagued by unfavorable discharge papers from more than a decade ago. He likes video games and had an interest in technology, but wasn’t clear on how to transform that into a career. Then his girlfriend discovered online an apprentice program called Apprenti.

“This is life-changing for me,” said Bass, who started an apprenticeship this month in Microsoft’s Windows and Devices group.

“Boxing doesn’t pay, and coaching boxing pays less. This is something that I have a strong passion for — the technology — and I can easily do this for the rest of my life if need be,” he said. “I’m having a blast with this.”

Apprenti is an initiative of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute, the nonprofit arm of the WTIA. The program launched a little more than a year ago and has placed more than 80 apprentices in Washington state — including Bass — and an additional 20 in Oregon and Virginia.

One apprentice recently “graduated” into a permanent job, and more than 3,100 people have applied nationally, mostly in Washington. Apprenti, a Seattle-based program, matches qualified applicants with tech companies and provides them free instruction through coding boot camps and other training programs.

Apprenti supporters say the approach could be an essential solution not only for the shortage of skilled tech workers, but also for boosting diversity in a sector that is overwhelmingly male and white. So far, 88 percent of the Apprenti placements are women, underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, military vets or a combination of these.

Kevin Goldsmith, CTO for Avvo.

“The potential is pretty tremendous to keep our industry vital and growing, and as a country to bring the industry into places that it wouldn’t come otherwise,” said Kevin Goldsmith, CTO for Avvo, an online legal review and ratings site. “Not just the Seattles and San Franciscos and Brooklyns, but Omaha and Iowa City and Detroit and places that really could use more jobs that provide a living wage to a group of people.”

Companies partnering with Apprenti are Avvo, Microsoft, Amazon, F5 Networks, Accenture, Comtech Telecommunications and Silicon Mechanics.

It’s estimated that there will be more than 1 million unfilled U.S. tech jobs by 2024, according to a national industry group. And many entry and mid-level tech positions available don’t require a Bachelor’s degree level of expertise. Local companies say that only 40 percent of their tech jobs require a 4-year college degree or higher, said Jennifer Carlson, who is leading Apprenti.

“Then that means there is 60 percent of everything else,” Carlson said.

Goldsmith agreed that there are other ways to stoke the pipeline of IT workers.

“If we require a four-year degree to get into the industry, we will never have the people we need,” Goldsmith said. “And we will eliminate people who, for one reason or another, can’t get that degree.”

Interviews without whiteboards

Through Apprenti, Carlson envisions something of a revolution in tech workforce training. She is eager to see the apprenticeship model take hold in America, as it already has in Europe for all sorts of professions. Carlson is confident that Apprenti can place 600 apprentices by 2020, if not sooner, and is working to spread the program nationally.

“It’s about building an entirely different and separate population or pipeline of talent,” Carlson said. “Because the university model can’t scale to our needs.”

The Apprenti program takes a unique approach. First, it’s free for participants, and the hope is to keep it that way through foundation and government support. Second, once candidates clear the hurdle of an initial screening, tech companies do “blind” interviews that omit information on education and work experience. Whiteboards are not allowed. Apprentices are chosen based on their potential and fit for a team.

Jared Call has an apprenticeship at F5. “It gives a company the opportunity, a low-risk trial period, of bringing someone on, teaching them and training them how you’d like to train them,” Call said. “And the company is providing a service, but it’s also to their benefit.” (Jared Call Photo)

“Apprenticeships in technology where you give people a chance based on their capacity or capability to learn — rather than what they’ve achieved — is a great way to match people up with companies,” said Jared Call, an apprentice with F5 Networks as a network security administrator.

Through Apprenti, Call did three months of training at TLG Learning in Bellevue, and now is doing specific F5 certification training. Call, 35, served in the U.S. Air Force and has Bachelor’s degree. He lives in Shoreline.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I’ve really loved it,” Call said. “My fellow employees have been very supportive of the program and willing to work with me and mentor me, and teach me what they know.”

Anatomy of an apprenticeship

Apprenti began recruiting applicants in September 2016, supported by $3.5 million in grants spread over five years from the U.S. Department of Labor and Washington State Labor & Industries. A few weeks later, the program announced the receipt of an additional $7.5 million in federal dollars to expand the project nationally. Additional money from JP Morgan Chase is helping pay the cost of training the apprentices.

Jennifer Carlson, executive director of the WTIA Workforce Institute.

Apprenti participants must first pass a screening covering math skills, the use of logic and critical thinking in problem solving, and emotional intelligence. About 30 percent of applicants make the initial cut. The program has committed to taking more than half of its apprentices from underrepresented populations.

Carlson said they’ve been surprised to find that problem-solving is the toughest hurdle for many applicants. If people fail a section, the program can recommend courses for filling their deficit and they can reapply.

Once someone qualifies, they are matched up with a participating company for phone interviews. After a person is selected for an apprenticeship, Apprenti works with the company to figure out a course of training. Some apprentices take coding classes full time, then start work. Others begin with a mix of classes and working.

“The companies are putting us through our paces,” Carlson said, as the program tailors the training to meet the needs of each company and specific job within the company. “We’ve had to be really nimble to meet the market’s needs.”

Apprenti doesn’t do the training, which lasts about two to four months, but contracts with coding boot camps such as Coding Dojo, Galvanize, TLG Learning and others.

Apprentices are paid to work at the companies, but start at 60 percent of a regular employee’s salary. After 1,000 hours, they are eligible for a 10 percent increase. The median salary for the apprentices is $51,000. The apprenticeships last a year and the hope is that the workers are hired at the end. At that point, they’re bumped up to a full salary.

“These are long-term careers,” Carlson said. “These are not dead-end jobs.”

‘I won the lottery’

Lauren McGuire likes the applied nature of the program. “There is an investment in really learning the subject matter,” she said, “because you’re going to use it on the job.” (Lauren McGuire Photo)

Lauren McGuire took a 17-year hiatus from work in order to raise two children. During that time, the 48-year-old Seattle woman held numerous volunteer leadership positions with parent-teacher organizations and ran for the Seattle School Board. But she was ready for a change.

McGuire, who holds a Master’s degree, previously worked as a project manager and consultant for Ernst & Young. Despite that, “finding a job was really hard, even though I had a solid education and work experience,” McGuire said.

She started teaching herself to code, but “I wasn’t sure I knew it well enough or what an employer would look for,” McGuire said. She attended an event for moms returning to work and the WTIA had information on Apprenti. McGuire decided to do the assessment, just curious to see how she’d do.

Now she’s an apprentice at Comtech, working as an IT business analyst.

“One of the great things is you get the job first, then the training specific for the job,” McGuire said.

“I feel really lucky,” she said. “I feel like I won the lottery with this.”

Shawn Farrow has an Associate’s degree in computer science and a Bachelor’s in business, but struggled to find a tech job. For the 31-year-old Federal Way, Wash., man, it seemed like his qualifications never exactly matched what employers wanted. Through Apprenti, he landed a web developer apprenticeship with Avvo and was able to strengthen the specific skills they needed. His was recently offered a job there, before his apprenticeship officially ended.

“To be honest with you,” Farrow said, “I’m ecstatic about the whole process.”

Shawn Farrow said that Apprenti helped him hone his skills and provided a confidence boost “to approach such a daunting industry,” he said. There are “a lot of stereotypes around programmers being super smart and the idea that getting into technology is hard.” (Shawn Farrow Photo)

Apprenti’s Carlson said they’re getting ready to announce three more states that will join the program. She’s been courting almost two-dozen foundations in the hope of securing funding to keep the training free. And she said that companies are increasing the number of apprentices that they’re willing to take.

Carlson says it’s a challenge to find the partnering companies and foundations in new locations. But she’s hopeful that the need for qualified employees will motivate businesses to participate.

Goldsmith, Avvo’s CTO, urged other companies to sign on. For him, the key draw was the chance to build a more diverse and inclusive technology company.

“You’re adding in super-excited, super-talented developers who we’re really glad to have as part of Avvo,” he said. “It’s also great for our senior developers who have really embraced them and learned a lot themselves.”

There is a cost, he said, but it’s worth it.

“These folks don’t just show up and are inexpensive developers. You have to commit to training them and commit to supporting them,” Goldsmith said. “It’s serious, but it’s not unreasonable. And if you’re willing to do that, the payoff is tremendous.”

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