This is Part Two on Apprenticeships. Part One 'What are Coding Apprenticeships' can be found here.
Coding Apprenticeships are still fairly new, so there’s not too much data to go on. Let’s look at some critiques of them that have already come up.
Critiques of Apprenticeships
Assuring the quality of any Work Based Learning system is a challenge, and Apprenticeships are no different. Apprenticeships need to be regulated to assure that those going into the program will learn the useful and up-to-date skills they have been offered, and that they are being treated fairly by their employers.
The process of setting up an apprenticeship program isn’t widely known. Developing a valuable apprenticeship program takes time and effort, and requires members of staff to be open to mentoring. Many employers simply assume they lack the resources and infrastructure needed, or don’t know where to start at all. Even if an employer is willing to have an apprenticeship program, setting it up may appear too daunting of a procedure, especially as they are run through many branches of government, and will come up against new regulations and procedures. There are benefits for businesses that have apprenticeship programs - but many companies are unaware of them.
Apprenticeships are known to have a stigma around them. Many see it as a ‘second-tier choice’ to go into trades, and look down on those who do. While coding isn’t a traditional trade, just the idea of apprenticeships alone can bring blue collar work to mind, and bring internalized prejudices and classist attitudes out in the open. This can prevent companies and job seekers alike from seeing apprenticeships as a viable option.
Due to this, apprenticeships need to have strong advocates to get employers on board. Employers must be convinced that there’s enough payoff for starting such a large program, and that dealing with the policies and procedures will be worth it. If apprenticeship companies like Apprenti want to expand, they can only do so if there is enough employer interest.
There’s also the fear that at the end of the program the apprentice will be interviewed for a full-time position, and be asked for skills they haven’t been taught. If there is not enough feedback and communication going on between mentors and hiring managers, there’s a strong chance that apprentices still won’t be qualified. If one apprentice has different mentors and each mentor assumes one of the others has taught specific skills - things could go pretty badly if there is no one checking in and keeping track.
Apprenticeships can be very stressful, as apprentices are under pressure to perform well, learn everything, and be a good fit for the company. Some programs run as long as a year, and that can be a long time to live in uncertainty. Even though the programs report high retention rates, there’s still a chance of not getting hired at the end. They are long term commitments, and it’s difficult to know if you’re going to like it before getting involved in one. For those who feel it’s not a good fit, there can be a lot of pressure not to back out with so much investment on all sides.
Then there’s the challenge of getting Apprenticeship programs to scale. Building a program for a single business is one thing, but then taking that program and growing it to serve much greater numbers is another thing entirely. It requires industry-wide standards to be made and adhered to. This is the only way apprenticeships can become a trusted standard in the tech industry. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a process to get started up and running, so there’s a fair chance it might be a bumpy start.
Let’s take a look at a problem they’ve been having in the UK. An Apprenticeship levy was passed in 2017, allowing businesses funding if they take on apprentices (and an opportunity to pass on some taxes). Unsurprisingly, following the levy there was a large increase in companies starting apprenticeship programs. But some employers have been finding the training provider is not doing enough, and that their apprentices don’t always know the skills they are supposed to. 20% of apprentice training was supposed to be done off the job, but companies found this simply wasn’t the case, leading to many unsatisfied employers.
A 2019 article reports: “Almost one in six (15%) organizations with apprentices said their providers had not been honest with them about the obstacles they might come up against when offering the training. As a result, 27% of the 500 HR decision-makers polled said they were considering changing at least one of their training providers.” They also found that 20% of HR managers ran into problems when the training providers could not customise apprenticeship training to suit the needs of individual employers.
Of course, this was for all apprenticeships in every sector, but the point still stands that even with funding and government support, companies have to be careful to find the right training provider to partner with if they want an apprenticeship to succeed. And of course training programs have to listen to the unique needs of each employer to ensure apprentices are ready to hit the workplace. If the apprenticeship doesn’t work out, it’s bad news for everyone involved.
Apprenticeship Trends / How are they evolving?
It’s currently thought that apprenticeships will be a solution to the tech skills gap, and provide the new pipelines necessary to get all those much needed positions filled. At the moment it’s hard to say what’s new about apprenticeships, as they’ve only become common in the last few years, and are something of a trend themselves.
As of 2019, there isn’t data on exactly how many tech companies have an apprenticeship program. However, in the last few years big name tech companies like Amazon have launched their own.
Twitter just recently started an apprenticeship program aimed specifically at getting more women and minorities into its tech staff, as well as those from untraditional backgrounds. The platform is used by the general public, and as such would benefit from having staff that reflects that diversity to better serve it. With only sixteen apprentice roles to fill at the moment, Twitter is looking to expand their new program. The apprentices will rotate between tech departments for twelve months.
In an attempt to encourage more tech companies to have on-the-job training programs, the Consumer Technology Association launched an Apprenticeship Coalition in 2019. The Coalition has members like Walmart, SoftBank robotics, and Toyota. These companies are either going to start new apprenticeships programs or add to existing ones. IBM also launched an apprenticeship program in 2018, and is offering apprenticeships in over 20 roles, with no degree requirements, and with the ages of apprentices ranging from 18 - 59.
The Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Consortium (SVAC) was founded in 2018, and is a non-profit group of organizations committed to connecting employers with programmers through apprenticeships. Their aim is to give people of all backgrounds and experience a chance to have a full-time tech job.
Similarly, major Silicon Valley companies gathered in 2018 for the Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Summit. The summit was hosted by SAP (the largest B2B software company), and partnered with Apprenti, TechSF, and Techtonica, organizations all working to connect companies with apprenticeship programs. The goal was to address the skills gap, showcase different models of apprenticeships, and discuss how they can help bring in new pipelines of talent.
A 2019 article reports Dev Bootcamp founder Dave Hoover stating that the best next step for any beginner developer is to work in a close mentorship in the workplace. Someone who’s done independent study and finished a bootcamp would then ideally work closely with a skilled developer and help them in their work to have a proper understanding of the field. This can be done through an apprenticeship, or even internships. Clearly the tech industry is now looking to apprenticeships to train and hire employees.
Let’s look at the findings of a few companies who recently started apprenticeship programs.
Pandora, a music and podcast platform, recently started an apprenticeship program as they couldn’t fill positions even with a university recruiting pipeline. Pandora decided to partner with Onramp, a company committed to connecting talent pools which lacked degrees to employers. New hires often need a bit of onboarding, so it’s a process of finding out what the new group of hires still needs to learn, and seeing that they get their onboarding.
They found it best to teach each group of apprentices different skills, seeing where the gaps in understanding were, and filling them as needed. They focused more on the potential of candidates instead of their experience, talking them through their projects during interviews and discussing what they wanted to work on, rather than having candidates do on-the-spot whiteboarding questions. This gets rid of much of the anxiety of an interview, and provides a better look at what they are really capable of.
Pandora has had positive outcomes and a huge growth in diversity through the program. They worried that mentors would feel burdened by the new apprentices, but found instead that mentors were seeing it as a positive leadership opportunity. After a year of running the program, Pandora reports “...a 100% full-time conversion rate and boosted employee morale in the process.”
8th Light is a tech company that only hires employees on as apprenticeships. They hire a number of apprenticeships on at a time, as they’ve found the small group format benefits collaborative learning. One week of onboarding at the beginning of each apprenticeship allows apprentices to build connections and working relationships with the rest of the cohort, which helps them throughout the rest of the program.
Apprentices at 8th Light work with teams, and work alongside staff, do self-study, complete apprentice workshops, and join client teams. Each apprenticeship is different, tailored specifically to each individual. Each apprentice has a direct mentor who provides feedback, guidance, and constructs a curriculum suited to the apprentices’ unique needs and goals. A wider system of support mentors helps to fill in any gaps in the apprentice’s training. The apprenticeship tends to last 6 months.
A 2019 Forbes article stresses that the best outcomes for apprenticeships happen when the employer is clear about the level of commitment they want from the apprentice, specifies what skills and training will be learned, has a clear timeline, outlines the feedback and evaluation process, and explains what sort of job or compensation the apprentice will have at the end of it. “Apprentices are motivated by rewards and acknowledgment, [they] should understand what benchmarks they are expected to reach and receive pay increases as they gain skills.”
There are many different styles and types of Apprenticeships, and different ways of structuring the work week around on-the-job training and classroom sections. All of this can be taken into account to create a system that works best for the company and for the apprentice. Businesses can have a probation period for apprentices, and can express what prior training and credentials they want apprentices to have. Governments have all sorts of programs and guidelines set up, providing support for apprentices and the companies taking them on, often providing grants and tax credits that fund the vast majority of the cost.
Strong mentorship is integral to apprenticeships. Without it, they are little better than glorified internships. Apprentices should be learning from multiple employees in the business - this way they can have the resources and networks to fill in any gaps in the teachings of a single mentor. Apprentices need to feel supported, as they are there to learn and grow, and are not simply on trial.
The Alberta government recently started a task force to figure out the best way to expand apprenticeship programs into the tech sector.
The task force was also charged with creating a ‘parity of esteem’ around apprenticeships, and to find out why it’s commonly thought that university degrees have more value than apprenticeships. They found that students feel a stigma around trade jobs, and might be pressured by peers and family to stay away from them. It’s an unfortunately common misconception that those who take apprenticeships aren’t smart enough for college, and some university students tend to look down at those who go into trades. This stigma creates a lot of insecurity around starting an apprenticeship.
Universities give out prestigious titles and credentials, but they doesn’t necessarily lead to an equally prestigious job - or salary. Trade jobs however, have been known to offer attractive pay and steady work. If apprenticeships want to expand, there needs to be an attempt to change their public perception.
As a way to help out the tech sector and fix the skills gap, there’s an argument that Computer Science and coding should be taught in schools as a new, compulsory subject. Many elementary and secondary schools don’t teach Computer Science, or if they do they have a very skewed understanding of what it entails. With the huge surge of tech jobs needed in the future, we should be looking to fix that. There are concerns that if computer science is taught in schools, what is taught will be outdated, and won’t be flexible or project-based enough to be useful. But if done correctly, having more in-school vocational training will allow students with a strong sense of career direction to start training early.
The Future of Apprenticeships
Much of the tech sector today seems to view apprenticeships as the way of the future.
There’s a huge skills gap in the tech industry, and with all the new jobs that will need to be filled, the industry can’t afford to not be looking for every employment pipeline they can find. This means turning to underrepresented demographics, looking at those without degrees, and swallowing down any stigma or internalized prejudices about where potential employees are coming from, and focusing instead on their merits and potential.
We can expect to see more apprenticeships.
We can certainly expect to be hearing more about them in all sectors, thanks to the attention and funding governments have been providing. Apprenticeships are a tried and true passage to steady employment - after all, humankind has been using apprenticeships in one way or another for just about as long as we’ve been around - it just comes down to making a system that is scalable, safe, and keeps everyone happy.
It seems the largest factor preventing companies from setting up their own apprenticeship programs is miscommunication. We need to see government, educators, and businesses all working together to promote apprenticeships to make it work.
Employers will not be able to fill positions if they are only looking at their old pipelines, if they don’t stop demanding beginner positions to be filled by those holding degrees and having years of experience. On the government level, it needs to be made clear that there is support and funding for businesses looking to take on apprenticeships. Perhaps there needs to be outreach program and efforts made on the parts of governments to make the process of setting up an apprenticeship as easy and painless as possible. The payoff of apprenticeships needs to be apparent to both businesses and job seekers.
The stigma around apprenticeships must be dealt with if they are to expand. It needs to be apparent that these middle skilled, new collar jobs are in high demand, offer good, well paying careers, and have well-regulated, well-funded systems in place to provide a steady pathway to employment. They need to be introduced in schools as a potential next-step towards a career. The career landscape is changing, and educators must be up to date on it so they can accurately prepare students for the reality of the job market.
It’s a bit too soon to see how coding and new collar apprenticeships are working long-term. Apprenticeships are a slower process, but a safer one. They are an investment in the long-term growth of both individuals and the businesses that will benefit from their careers. The tech industry is one that is known to be volatile and quick to change. Maybe what it needs is an option for a slower, steadier sort of training.
I think we can safely expect coding apprenticeships to stick around. The tech industry needs every option open, every pipeline explored - and one with so many government benefits attached is sure to pay off in the future - even if it’s cumbersome to set up in the present. Think of it as growing pains. It might be messy right now, but with time and support, coding apprenticeships can establish themselves as a valuable and stable employment pipeline