This is Part One on Apprenticeships. Part Two 'Critiques and the Future of Coding Apprenticeships' can be found here.
The term ‘Apprenticeship’ tends to bring to mind the skilled trades: carpenters, electricians, construction workers and so on. The general concept of on-the-job training however, has been around for just about as long as humankind, and today apprenticeships are seen in many sectors and industries outside of the trades, including coding.
Apprenticeships have existed for thousands of years, from the form of a novice learning from a master, to formalized practices taught through trade guilds, to the largely systemized and government run apprenticeships today. It is important to note that apprenticeships exist in many different forms, and that every country, province, and state will have different programs in place.
The best known types of apprenticeships are trade apprenticeships. Due to their long history and establishment, any apprenticeship program in sectors outside of trades tend to follow in their example, changing things to better suit their unique needs as necessary.
Trade apprenticeships are run through various branches of government. They regulate and promote the skilled trades, making sure those practicing have the right training, are using safe practices, and have completed what they need to legally practice their trade in their area. They also frequently provide funding for both apprentices and employers, with grants and tax benefits available throughout.
Apprenticeships are a form of Work Based Learning (WBL). They are a combination of classroom and on-the-job training leading to the acquisition of a trade credential. Once an apprenticeship has been completed, the apprentice advances to the position of ‘journeyman’ and is then qualified to work independently in their skilled trade.
The process will be different everywhere, but essentially it comes down to looking up local programs, completing any necessary pre-apprenticeship training, and applying for a local apprenticeship. Pre-apprenticeship training is available in the form of college courses, and even high school co-op work placements can help students work towards an apprenticeship.
Trade apprenticeships can take varying lengths of time to complete, depending on when you start training, what prior experience you have, what the local programs are like, and what trade you are going into. They can take anywhere from two to five years to complete. Typically, about 20% is spent in classroom learning, and 80% is spent on-the-job learning. Apprentices are paid livable wages throughout the apprenticeship. Once the work hours and classroom work is finished, there is often a final exam where the competence of the apprentice is tested by a professional.
Before taking on an apprentice, businesses must make sure they can support one. Apprentices need time to complete the classroom sections of training, and businesses must meet government regulations in making sure they have enough support on hand to mentor the apprentice in a safe environment.
What’s the appeal of trade apprenticeships for the business doing the mentoring? An apprentice will gain a valuable understanding of the unique workplace they’ve worked in. It helps to train up the next generation of tradespeople, and allows for skills to pass from one generation to the next. Apprenticeships tend to foster loyalty to the business, and allows apprentices to pick up unique skills and values, securing the future of a business.
Apprenticeships haven’t been seen in the tech industry until only recently. This may simply be because it’s such a new industry and hasn’t had time to establish itself as something that could support an apprenticeship program.
It’s a bit tricky to find where tech apprenticeships first started. Microsoft launched its apprenticeship program back in 2010, but if there are any earlier tech apprenticeships, they’re hiding themselves very well. They certainly haven’t been commonplace until the last few years.
Techtonic Academy, which started up in 2014, has been referred to as the “first formal software development apprenticeship program to be approved by the Department of Labor.” At the time, Coding Bootcamps were common but apprenticeships in the tech sector were scarce. The idea behind Techtonic Academy’s Apprenticeship Program was to support learning on-the-job. They wanted to base the program around hiring people due to their attitude and aptitude for learning, not for their experience. It was reportedly a difficult process to get the program approved by the Department of Labour (which specializes in traditional trades) as this was something of the first of its kind.
Part of the success of Techtonic’s program was the draw of apprentices earning a livable wage from day one. This makes it much more financially secure than a Bootcamp or a college degree, as hopeful apprentices aren’t restricted by financial barriers to sign up for the program. The process combines classroom training with on-the-job-learning, where apprentices work on real client projects. After 1000 paid hours, apprentices are brought on as paid employees (or may be hired on by a client they’ve worked with).
However, the Techtonic program is highly selective, as it receives 200 applicants per each 20 person class. Techtonic stresses that they look more for passion and attitude than for the credentials of applicants, relying on in-person interviews to find those open to learning and excited to learn.
Today in 2019, coding apprenticeships are turning up everywhere. This can be attributed to several factors.
The tech industry is dealing with ‘degree inflation’, where companies are asking for a four-year degree and years of experience for positions that really don’t need that much qualification. On a large scale, companies asking for so much just to fill beginner positions means that these roles don’t tend to get filled.
An article from bizjournal has this to say about degree inflation: “This counter-productivity affects the tech sector through hidden costs such as extended time-to-fill, fewer applicants, higher salary expectations, less diversity, and the higher likelihood of employees leaving for a competitor.”
The new in-demand tech positions are being referred to as ‘New-Collar Jobs.’ These are jobs that require some specific skills, but not a four-year degree to prepare for. Currently there’s a huge demand for these jobs due to the tech skills gap, where employers can’t find skilled workers to fill the roles they need. Schools don’t know what skills are actually needed in the marketplace and students frequently come out unprepared. And as the tech industry changes so quickly, it’s even more difficult for schools to predict what skills will be useful in the future.
The largest demographic of tech workers are white and male. This seems to be who gets hired when companies only rely on degree qualifications, but as mentioned, companies on a wide scale are unable to fill roles. This singular pipeline simply isn’t enough anymore. Skilled workers are desperately needed, causing employers to look for skilled workers with untraditional backgrounds, without four-year degrees, and from underrepresented demographics in an attempt to bridge the equality gap - and fill the positions they desperately need filled.
Under this pressure, companies are looking to expand their employment pipeline, and turn to apprenticeships as a way to bring in fresh talent. The Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Consortium says this of apprenticeships: “This is work democratization and this is the future of work”.
At the same time, the demand for traditional skilled tradespeople is increasing as well.
CBC News reports that as of 2019, Canada needs 167,739 new apprentices in the coming five years to keep up with demand. A lot of this is due to changing technology, as things are becoming more complicated, and harder for the average person to deal with. There are more skilled tradespeople needed to handle it. The government is trying to get people interested in trades, as recently Ontario announced spending $20.8 million to attract people to trades. $2.5 million is going into pre-apprenticeship training, in an attempt to open an employment pipeline for new trade workers.
With all the government support and attention on apprenticeships, it seems only a logical step for tech companies to look into setting up their own apprenticeship programs as well.
Apprenticeships are proven to create a valuable training-to-employment pipeline. Companies invest in workers with high school diplomas, and equip them with valuable training learned on the job so they can fill the exact needed position. It is a combination of targeted education and on-the-job training. Apprenticeships have been proven to foster loyalty and increase job retention to around 80%.
With on-the-job training, apprentices can see what it’s actually like to work in the tech industry before being formally employed. They are taught the skills they need for that unique workplace, which assures that they will be a great fit for a full-time position with the company at the end of the program. Employers also get to see their potential hires in action and working day-to-day, allowing them to see potential that might not shine through in the stress of a job interview setting.
Once the education and experience barrier is taken down, more people without degrees - or with degrees in other areas - can get into the tech industry. These jobs pay much better than many others available to those without a degree, making them quite an attractive option. Career changers as well can see tech as an option. We are seeing more and more people look towards a tech career on the promise of high pay and stable employment (and the security of having a job in a field that’s in high demand).
The Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Consortium website says: “Apprenticeships offer an unmatched opportunity to forge our own destinies by tailor-making programs that fit our talent needs now and into the future.”
One huge benefit of apprenticeship programs is that by being run through the government, they are often entirely funded by them. Companies can pay apprentices living wages from day one, with the government providing funds for both business and apprentice.
Apprenticeships have shown to lead to well paying careers. A 2018 article by CNBC notes that: “While the median annual salary for someone with some college but no degree is about $40,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many new-collar jobs offer wages over six figures.” Apprenti also reported that of their apprentices who had been hired on full-time, the average salary was $88,000.
Having an apprenticeship program has also been shown to give companies a greater sense of purpose. When employees constantly have new apprentices coming in, when they mentor, learn from each other, and help the people they’ve trained get meaningful careers, it creates strong, long lasting working relationships. It helps to create a sense of pride and loyalty, and fosters valuable networks that can last through an entire career.
Heather Terenzo from Techtonic calls apprenticeships: “...the next phase of boot camps: It's a better way to train, a better way to get talented people in the door, a better way to build and guide a diverse workforce.”
There are bridge organizations that help companies to find an apprenticeship, and some Bootcamps even have in-house apprenticeship programs.
LaunchCode, a non-profit, is one such bridging company. They help companies find skilled tech talent from all backgrounds. LaunchCode offers programs for those without any coding knowledge at all to learn about computer science fundamentals, and helps them find out what sort of a career they’d like in the tech industry. They offer coding courses, teaching high demand skills and languages, employment prep, interview workshops, coaching, and projects to help candidates get a job. Once a candidate has passed the assessment, they can then apply for a paid-apprenticeship.
Apprenti launched in 2017, and works to set up companies with apprentices. Students apply online, complete 115 questions about critical thinking, logic, and math, and if their score is high enough they are brought in for interviews immediately. If their score isn’t high enough, that’s where the training programs come in. Apprenti trains candidates for positions like cloud support specialists, data center technicians, and software developers. Once hired on as apprentices, they have twenty weeks of classroom training at no cost, as they work with third party companies to do the training. The apprenticeship lasts one year.
A 2018 Article discussed the differences between Bootcamps and Apprenticeships. Apprenticeships have advantages over Bootcamps in that they provide a greater sense of purpose. It can be hard to just sit down and learn a coding language. Even with the projects that Bootcamps offer, it can be a different matter to see code applied in the real world context, to see the clients and understand how the work benefits them. It’s much easier to see the value in every skill when you can see it paying off. Also, in Bootcamps students must show that they can learn and adapt quickly. Subjects are taught quickly, with as much knowledge crammed into as short a time as they can. It’s not the best environment for long term learning. Apprenticeships allow space to grow.
Apprenticeships have an advantage over internships as well, as while both offer on-the-job training, apprenticeships provide a section of academic instruction. Of course, the real important differences come down to the fact that apprenticeships are long-term and well paid positions often leading to full-time employment with the company they train with, and leave apprentices with valuable credentials at the end of the program. Internships on the other hand, are often unpaid, short-term, and frequently leave the hopeful employees with experience, but little else at the end of them.