You have permission to edit this article.

Not-so-basic Training: Apprenti Bridges Tech Talent and Diversity Gaps

You don’t have to hold a computer science degree from a prestigious university to land a job in the technology industry. You just need to have the right attitude, competencies, and willingness to learn.

As the tech industry’s growth surges and its need for help in areas like software development rises in concert, programs that help fill that employment need are critical.

These programs include Seattle-based Apprenti, which aims not only to train workers but also to expand the field’s demographics by focusing, in part, on underrepresented groups, such as women, minorities, and veterans. It’s also open to anyone from any background with the foundation to succeed, college degree or not.

The gap between the number of tech jobs available and the number of college degrees minted in computer science is huge, said Jason Johnson, human resources director of global early career programs at Microsoft Corp.

“As you especially look at more and more industries becoming digital, that gap only continues to widen,” Johnson said. “So there’s just not enough talent out there.”

Redmond-based Microsoft is one of eight area companies that are hiring partners with Apprenti, a registered apprenticeship program powered by the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) and run by the WTIA Workforce Institute. It was created to address the tech talent shortage in the state. Other area partners are Amazon, Avvo, Comtech, Silicon Mechanics, F5, Synology, and the City of Seattle.

Since it launched in 2016, 85 percent of the 424 apprentices registered in Washington were hired after completing their apprenticeship.

Johnson has seen everyone from department store shelf stockers to an oil industry ship captain, boxing instructor, and others land careers at Microsoft through Apprenti.

“The stories are pretty cool,” Johnson said. “And that’s what this is all about, is trying to democratize the tech industry. It doesn’t have to be people with certain degrees from certain schools — everybody should have an opportunity to work in a job that they’re passionate about.”

The program’s apprentices also bring diverse experiences that help Microsoft design and build products for its diverse global customer base, he said.

Microsoft is training its fourth Apprenti cohort since its first group began in mid-2017, with each cohort numbering about 20 people. It converts about 70 percent of its software apprentices to full-time employees.

Aeone Singson emerged from that first cohort to become a software engineer at Microsoft.

“Apprenti is a life-changing program,” Singson said.

She knew she needed more than her associate degree to be considered for a job in tech, and lacking the means at the time to get a bachelor’s, she learned of Apprenti, which proved fateful. “I think that’s one of the things that Apprenti gave me, was the ability to be considered, kind of an invitation.”

Support throughout and after the program was great, Singson said.“It definitely is the kind of program that requires a certain tenacity — and if your dream is to be in tech and you don’t have a means to get there, then definitely, (it’s) a good program for you,” she said, adding that she still plans to attain her bachelor’s degree.

Johnson said the people who typically succeed demonstrate a growth mindset, are lifelong learners, curious, good collaborators and communicators, and demonstrate a healthy level of awareness of themselves and those around them.

“They’re hungry to make themselves and the people that they work with and the products that they work with better,” Johnson said. “It might sound a little cliché, but those are true differentiators, I think, for the folks who end up being successful,” not only in the program, but at Microsoft.

While technical skills aren’t a prerequisite, there is a thorough screening program to get accepted into Apprenti.

During the first five months of the apprenticeship, accepted individuals work with a local coding academy on a curriculum that meets, in this case, Microsoft’s needs. Its software engineering leaders help guide what should be taught in the program and what proficiencies are expected. Assuming the apprentice meets those guidelines, he or she advances to paid on-the-job training for 12 months at Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

Microsoft pays a monthly stipend to apprentices during the five months because they are asked not to hold other jobs due to the 8-to-5 training and homework requirements. Apprentices take a bit of a gamble that the program will work out for them, Johnson said.

“They put their trust in Apprenti, and they put their trust in us to help deliver an impactful learning experience that prepares them for a full-time role,” Johnson said.

Once they come on board, Microsoft pays them on a step progression, starting at a certain level in line with Apprenti guidelines. After six months, there’s a bump in pay if they’re meeting expectations, and ultimately the apprentice works up to an entry-level salary.

Johnson said there’s been a learning curve to the program for Microsoft, but the company supports efforts like this to extend opportunities to democratize and remove barriers and obstacles to the industry, and enforce that someone doesn’t have to possess a specific background to work there.

“It’s really about who you are and the drive that you bring,” along with the soft skills and behaviors that the company seeks, he said. “I think that’s been awesome. We’re still on this journey, and we’re always looking for ways to expand opportunities through Apprenti.”

These types of programs are important for Microsoft and the whole tech ecosystem, he said, hoping other companies get involved in programs like Apprenti.

“Across the tech industry, I think it’s going to take a lot of us to kind of help shift some of this past practice and hiring culture,” to show people graduating from programs like Apprenti can succeed in tech and provide value to companies, he said.