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Columbia Business Monthly

Not your Grandfather’s Apprenticeship: An old Approach is the Next Big Thing in the Technology Job Market

Apr 06, 2018 03:17PM ● By Makayla Gay
By Jeremy Catoe
Business Solutions Director, Midlands Technical College

   The job market today is quite different than it was just a decade ago. Where we once had a glut of talent on the sidelines waiting to fill every open job, we now have jobs sitting empty while employers struggle to find talent that is able, available, and willing. More companies are adopting workforce pipeline development strategies to engage potential candidates farther upstream in order to build the skill sets that are critical to their businesses. One of those strategies that has proven successful for quite a long time is an apprenticeship.

When I think of apprenticeship, like many of you, I immediately shift my thought process to trade jobs. And rightfully so; we all have watched movies set in the medieval times where a blacksmith would have his apprentice on the ready to hand him whatever tool he needed at the moment. In more modern times we are used to seeing apprentices, often called helpers, tailing closely behind electricians and plumbers as they learn the ropes on the job. Over the last several years we have seen the widespread adoption of apprenticeships in the manufacturing industry as well. Machinists and maintenance technicians are often built from the ground up by companies who hire them to “earn while they learn.”

The reasons that apprenticeships are a good investment have been told and sold for years. The main one is that when the talent you need to hire isn’t available in the numbers you need or at the rate you’re able to pay, you have to find a new way to grow your own. 

I’m not here to re-tell that story. I’m here to tell you that that story is incomplete.

You don’t have to carry a toolbox to be an apprentice. You don’t have to wear Carhartts and steel toe boots to be an apprentice. You don’t even have to get your hands dirty to be an apprentice. Any job where you develop talent through a combination of formal training and on-the-job learning can be an apprenticeship.

If you are in charge of recruiting or developing talent for a technology company, I’m talking to you right now.

The reason you and I both identify apprenticeships with trades is those companies are way ahead of us. It’s hard to hear that, but it’s true. Those smart kids you want to hire as programmers or network specialists once they graduate from college? They’re already being hired by the manufacturers when they are still in high school. Instead of learning to write code for your software, they’re learning to maintain and support high-tech, million-dollar equipment. What should be even more frightening to you is how well they are being paid to do it.

Don’t panic. The reason they are ahead of you is that they hit critical mass before you did. But the time to catch up is now, and the method is the same old-fashioned tool those companies used: apprenticeship.
IT apprenticeships are the next logical step in workforce development. When you think about it, the model applies just as well to a software developer as it does to a plumber. And what better way to capture that talent and aim it at your specific needs than to hire and train them yourself? The cost of training pales in comparison to the cost of not having enough trained people. Most of our customers who are already taking this approach see significant, positive impacts on employee retention as well.

Picture a process that takes your recruiters out of college job fairs and puts them in front of high school sophomores. Forget asking them if they can configure a specific type of server or if they can code in a specific language. The important step at this point is identifying a genuine interest in the type of jobs your company has to offer. If that interest exists, you can show them a roadmap to a career. That roadmap puts them taking high school classes in the morning, college classes in the afternoon, and working part-time for you in between. Their junior and senior years of high school will be spent learning your business and earning college credit in training that you need your employees to have. That’s youth apprenticeship.

Once they graduate from high school you hire them full time and continue their training, both on the job and in the classroom if necessary. You build them according to your specific needs and you increase their earning capability as their productivity to your company increases. That’s adult apprenticeship. 

Again, we already know that this model works. We just have to move past the idea that it’s for blue-collar jobs only. The time to make that move is now. As the Columbia area pushes to bring in more technology companies while simultaneously fostering growth for the firms already here, the competition for talent is only going to get worse. 

Think of the situation as a herd of cattle drinking out of a creek. The further upstream you go, the cleaner the water gets. You don’t want to be the cow drinking downstream.

If you want to have a conversation about whether or not an apprenticeship project is the right approach for your company please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]

Jeremy Catoe is a Business Solutions Director for Midlands Technical College.  A Columbia native, Jeremy is a graduate of the Moore School at USC. He works with business who need help improving their bottom-lines by developing solutions to fill mission critical skills gaps, to engage and retain employees, and to develop training programs geared towards external audiences that have a direct impact on overall company growth.