January 15, 2019 / 12:21 PM / 3 months ago

Living the tech dream, thanks to a novel apprenticeship program

NEW YORK (Reuters) - While growing up in Seattle, Enrique Rico’s mom cleaned the posh homes of Microsoft employees. When Rico tagged along on sick days from school, he dreamed of having the life of a technology worker.

Enrique Rico, 26, a developer at Avvo, an online marketplace for legal services, is seen in Seattle, Washington, March 2018. Courtesy Enrique Rico/via REUTERS

Now, at 26, with no college degree or background in STEM, Rico is working a developer at Avvo, an online marketplace for legal services.

He is a graduate of a program called Apprenti that provides education and on-the-job training for tech jobs to non-traditional recruits.

“I never really thought I could do it. But once I dug deep, I gave it my all,” said Rico.

The Apprenti program is run by the Washington Technology Industry Association in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor. It operates at around 50 companies nationwide with major employers including Microsoft (MSFT.O), Amazon.com (AMZN.O) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM.N).

During the first year of the program in 2017, 76 candidates went through the training, which includes about 400 to 780 classroom hours on the front end, compressed into 12 weeks.

After a year of on-the-job training, the program will finish 2018 with 330 graduates placed into full-time jobs. The class of 2019 is on track to produce more than 700 graduates.

Amazon expects its apprenticeship cohort to grow from 150 to 1,000 workers in the next few years, said Tammy Thieman, a senior program manager at the ecommerce giant.

The tech industry had 2.8 million openings last year, with 50 percent of them middle-level jobs that do not necessarily require a college degree, according to Jennifer Carlson, executive director of Apprenti.

The pace of hiring is lagging, however, because companies cannot find properly trained workers, she said.

“This industry needed technical competency at the start - that’s a paradigm shift from traditional apprenticeships,” Carlson added.

Apprenti focuses on veterans, women and under-represented minorities, screening about 2,000 candidates to find 700 candidates for 2019.

Amazon teamed up with Apprenti after its CEO Jeff Bezos made a commitment in 2016 to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by 2021. But the apprenticeship program quickly broadened to find qualified workers for a vast swath of open jobs that required specific credentials.

“It is not at all unrealistic that freshman going to college today come out already behind,” said Amazon’s Thieman. “An apprenticeship offers a model to do the learning in a compressed way and then learn the skills on the job.

While veterans often have valuable skills, they usually do not have a conventional resume or workplace experience. That is why the biggest challenge currently for veterans is being underemployed when they leave the armed forces, said Chris Newsome, vice president of candidate aggregation at RecruitMilitary.

“A lot of these men and women are able to find jobs, but not necessarily careers,” Newsome said.

New college graduates often will need to complete a program like Apprenti to be job-ready because programming languages and platforms change so quickly.

Training at universities or even specialty classes at community colleges also do not quite stack up when it comes to hiring for a role such as cloud administrators which require specific certificates, Apprenti’s Carlson said.

Even boot camps for coding do not necessarily do the trick. Rico tried that route first, quitting his $16.50-an-hour job as a salesperson at an Apple Store to go into a coding program.

But without a college degree, he did not stand much of a chance against the automated interfaces most big tech companies use to sort through applicants when hiring.

DIVERSITY BOOST

For smaller companies like Avvo, Apprenti is more of a mission.

“The executives saw the value of a program that gets you talented engineers and does a social good,” said Hunter Davis, director of engineering at Avvo.

The company has about 25-30 developers currently on staff, with about 15 percent of them coming through Apprenti.

“They are awesome and full of grit and willing to learn,” Davis said.

The leg up for Apprenti grads starts right away. Like Rico, many were previously working minimum wage jobs, with a median income of $28,000 and most without benefits. The starting salary in the Apprenti program is $45,000 during training.

At six months when candidates begin their on-the-job training, the salary rises $51,000. If they get hired full-time - and almost all of them do - Apprenti grads make at least $75,000.

That is a life-changing salary for most of the participants.

“I have an apartment and a dog and a cat,” said Rico, who is still dreaming. “I’d love to get married and have kids and buy a house. I want to be my own boss. I would love to start my own company.”

Editing by Lauren Young and G Crosse

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