Necessity is the mother of invention. As the state tech economy continues to boom, the education system hasn’t come close to keeping pace with the jobs being created — over 3,000 new tech staffers are needed annually, over which time about 500 computer science majors will graduate from state colleges. This has led Washington to become a national leader in recruiting IT and programming experts from other states and overseas.
But it’s also led to a plethora of innovative training models, largely funded or supported by local tech companies, and designed to expand the industry’s talent pipeline without navigating the policy minefields of Olympia. These locally incubated programs include Code.org (providing an entry point to computer science), Ada Developers Academy (offering training and job placement to women seeking a career in tech), Code Fellows (a programming and coding bootcamp), and more.
With a new federal grant, Washington will soon play host to another tech training model, albeit one that’s well vetted in the blue-collar world. The Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) has announced it will create the nation’s first registered apprentice program for tech positions, using $3.5 million in federal funding to build a new pathway to high-paying gigs in the industry, particularly in software development and project management.
The program will train 600 new workers over the next five years, and aims to diversify tech’s overwhelmingly white, male workforce. WTIA president Michael Schutzler says at least half of program participants will be women, minorities or veterans. The organization has formed partnerships with Joint Base Lewis McCord, Goodwill, Washington MESA, and other organizations to identify potential candidates.
“This is really scary honestly, because no one has done this [sort of program] in tech,” says Schutzler. “But we’re not inventing a new wheel. Apprenticeships are used all over. We’re just taking what works in other industries and countries, and applying it. And this may be a pool of talent that, in some ways, has higher quality candidates than someone with just a four-year degree in computer science.”
Participants in the program will train for four months before being placed in a full-time, paid apprenticeship with a participating tech company, lasting a year or more. These companies include Microsoft, F5 Networks, Accenture and others. While pre-apprentice training currently requires tuition, Schutzler is hopeful that industry partnerships may lessen its burden. Currently there’s no firm cost estimate for students, falling somewhere in the wide range of $5,000 to $10,000 per person.
As anyone in the tech industry will attest, every coder starts out as an apprentice to some extent. Every company has its own culture to navigate, projects and initiatives with which to become acquainted. Recent graduates in particular are not expected to operate without significant hand-holding. It’s for this reason that the rarity of this sort of program is unusual, and not likely to last after Washington tests the model.
The main obstacles to overcome will be the tuition — which could be prohibitive to those attempting a second career — and ensuring the selection process and training creates apprentices that are up to snuff with industry standards. Microsoft may end up playing a role in both areas.
In addition to providing a home for future apprentices, Microsoft has provided funding for the program on top of the federal grant, and has incubated many of its recruitment and training protocols. The company’s program for bringing vets and service members into the tech industry — the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy — is cited as a model for WTIA’s new endeavor. Their training system for industry certifications, Microsoft MCSE, will be utilized in pre-apprenticeship training. When Schutzler talks about industry partners who may help cover tuition costs for students, the Redmond-based company is probably among potential candidates.
Washington’s tech apprenticeship program will launch in the first quarter of 2016, starting with a cohort of 20 students before scaling up.