No tech degree? No problem. Tech Council launches Apprenti program to meet Nashville’s demand for skilled employees
When Nashville’s new program to address demand for tech talent, Apprenti, launches in November, the class will be comprised of 15 Nashvillians seeking a new path to a highly paid field. They include a pharmacist from India, whose credentials didn’t translate in the U.S., a former robotics operator and a truck driver who wants a career closer to home.
While the goal is to help these individuals succeed in the tech field, the Nashville Technology Council’s Apprenti program initially was driven by employers’ needs across each sector in Middle Tennessee.
“The need for tech workers with tech skills spans far beyond a traditional technology company,” Nashville Tech Council CEO Brian Moyer said. “Every company in town is looking for that skill.”
Nashville is home to more than a dozen colleges, but in many cases, graduates of those schools studying technology are not sticking around once they are trained. At Vanderbilt University, recent graduates with tech skills flocked to Washington, California and New York to work for IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook. Those states attracted 58 tech graduates; Tennessee kept 12. Among overall graduates, most stayed in Tennessee or moved to New York.
The trend is what local employers have observed for years and what has spurred them to embrace the Apprenti model which calls on them to offer year-long, paid apprenticeships to participants. The salaries are below market rate, but allow apprentices to be paid as they learn. If successful, employers will retain the workers they train, allowing them to shift resources to training instead of recruiting.
Nashville Apprenti participants will receive three to six months of classroom training at the Nashville Software School before they begin their apprenticeships. The courses are funded by the Nashville Technology Council’s foundation, not the students. They don’t receive a stipend though, so they must still cover living expenses.
Bringing the program to Nashville
In 2015, the Nashville Technology Council staff members met with nearly 100 local employers to determine which tech skills were most in need for new hires to be successful. What they kept hearing was that employers needed critical thinkers and problem solvers who worked well on a team and had a strong work ethic, not those possessing a certain software language. They were confident they could successfully train new hires if they had those characteristics, said Sandi Hoff, Nashville Technology Council chief of staff.
“’If you give me the right person, I can train them and make them the right employee,’” Hoff said, describing employers’ response. “How could we carve out a solution where we could identify people with the right aptitude, who had basic skills?”
Considering that question prompted the discovery of the Washington-based Apprenti program. Three years later, 12 Nashville companies are participating and 15 apprentices have been chosen from a pool of 350 people. Franklin-based IT firm 3-D Technology Group is among local companies participating and contributing financially to the program.
“A lot of our really successful (people) just needed an opportunity to get into IT,” 3-D CEO Chris Martinez said. “Long term, they can get trained and get higher paying jobs. It’s really what the program is all about… It helps out 3D and it helps out people looking to make that move.”
Apprenti, which will be lead by Kevin Harris at the Nashville Technology Council, will focus initially software development and will expand to network security and systems administration.
To become an apprentice, applicants must take a test that includes basic math, logic and emotional intelligence. If they meet a certain score, they are considered for the program. They then interview for the program and meet with partner employers before being matched with a company. Once they begin, they are matched with a mentor from that company.
What makes Apprenti different from other training programs underway is the highly vetted process, which is part of the council’s attempt to ensure success for all participants and employers, Hoff said.
“We try to ensure that anybody who gets into the program can be successful on the job,” Hoff said.
Making the process inclusive to a range of backgrounds is also a priority, Moyer said. The council has been reaching out to community organizations to ensure that veterans, females and underserved populations are aware of the program.
The first cohort begins training Nov. 2, and they will be on their job sites in January. In three years, Moyer said the council wants the program to be self-sustaining with employer partners covering the cost of training as well and to expand Apprenti beyond Nashville to other parts of the state.
“We fully expect to be running hundreds of apprenticeships,” Moyer said. “The need is there.”
The tech council is raising $1 million from private companies to offset costs in the program’s first three years and is in talks with the city and state for potential funding support, Hoff said.
Finding another trade
The median age for Apprenti is 31, higher than expected, Jennifer Carlson, executive director of Apprenti, said. The median income of those entering is $28,000 and more than half of the participants have a two-year or four-year degree. In Nashville, the average age of those applying is 35.
When the economic downturn hit a decade ago, many in their 20s experienced limited opportunities and wages during the recession and in its aftermath. Now, they are seeking a more lucrative trade, Carlson said.
“We have a lot of people, a full generation of people almost, who are locked into service industries jobs because, at the time, it was all they could get,” Carlson said. “Now there is no on-ramp for them to get back into a skilled position.”
Going back to school, when individuals may have families or other responsibilities, is unlikely. An apprenticeship provides a paid alternative to pursue the tech sector without getting another degree.
Participating employers pay a median salary of $51,000 to their apprentices through the Apprenti program. Eighty percent of graduates have so far stayed with their employer, and the median pay after the apprenticeship is $88,000.
In Tennessee, where there are less than 0.4 candidates per software developer job opening even though median wages are close $87,000, 70 percent higher than the state’s average income.
“This program helps to focus on the underemployed,” Moyer said. “It benefits on both sides. It helps to fill open positions but it also helps to improve the lives of people who are being bypassed and being overlooked.”
Expanding from Washington to Tennessee
Apprenti is modeled from an initiative launched in Washington state in 2016. Despite being home to Amazon, one of the world’s largest tech companies, there was not enough skilled workers to fill the number of tech-related positions in each sector.
With $4 million from the state, a group of officials developed the program with the intent of hiring those without a traditional tech background. A college degree is not required.
“It really is an attempt to home grow the talent in our own background to fill that void and start making investments in that talent domestically,” said Carlson. “You bring in skills that are applicable to our sector, but you don’t have to be proficient in a tech role walking in the door. We skill you up, based on an employers’ need.”
Apprenti sought to standardize the skills and credentials it was teaching so the program was relevant to employers regardless of sector and city. The program also prioritizes building a diverse talent pool and puts an emphasis on reaching out to various community groups to cull interest.
Apprenti in Washington has just graduated its second class after participants completed a year of on-the-job training. Twenty-seven cohorts are underway nationally, in Washington, Virginia, Oregon, Illinois, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee.
How to participate in Apprenti:
Reach Jamie McGee at 615-259-8071 and on Twitter @JamieMcGee_.
Tech jobs in Tennessee
Software developers, apps : 0.38 candidates per job opening, median wage: $87,890
Software developers, systems: 0.31 candidates per opening, median wage: $86,890
Vanderbilt graduate data from August 2016 – May 2017:
- All graduates staying in Tennessee: 157
- Tech graduates staying in Tennessee: 12
- Tech graduates moving to New York: 20
- Tech graduates moving to California: 19
- Tech graduates moving to Washington: 19