IT Apprenticeship Programs: Building the Last Mile in Tech Education

By John Akkara

Unemployment for college graduates is at its lowest point in over a decade at just 2.1%, compared with 3.7% for those with a high school diploma, according to October 2019 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But a familiar tale of frustration simmers below the surface of these seemingly positive numbers. College graduates report difficulties in finding jobs that correspond to their level of education. Entry-level positions require years of experience. In fact, the entry-level jobs of the past no longer exist in highly technical fields and are often outsourced. Graduates of technology-oriented majors such as software development discover that their skills fail to translate into successful careers, leaving them at a loss for how to break into the industry. Successful careers in IT simply feel out of reach.

The gap between education and employment is the harsh reality for countless graduates, particularly in rapidly transforming, highly technical fields like computer science and software development. The unemployment statistics are deceiving. College graduates may be finding employment, but that employment falls far short of the promise of higher education and does not translate into careers commensurate with their potential or background. A staggering 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first jobs, and of those, two thirds remain underemployed five years later, according to a new report by labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicate that the gap between education and employment is even more prominent for certain subgroups, including college majors and racial categories. Computer science graduates, for instance, faced an unemployment rate of 4.7% as of January 2019—significantly higher than the rate for those with just a high school diploma. More broadly speaking, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors lose hope of a promising career, with 52% of STEM majors finding work in a non-STEM field—in other words, underemployed.

The employability gap is also an equity issue. The pictures worsens when broken down by ethnicity and gender, as certain socioeconomic groups face deepened disadvantages in these fields. In computer science, women face an unemployment rate of 5.5%, compared with 2.3% for men, and Asian women specifically see 6.2% unemployment. Students with advantages, such as higher-income backgrounds or personal and networking connections, have a step up on their peers that is not necessarily commensurate with their skill level.

The disconnect

Universities and higher education organizations have begun to identify the breadth of this issue. In fact, the New England Board of Higher Education released a comprehensive study, “Learning for Life and Work,” from its Commission on Higher Education & Employability that revealed the divide between graduation and employment:

“While 96% of chief academic officers at higher education institutions say their institution is very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work, only 11% of business leaders strongly agree that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their business needs.”

This disconnect makes one thing abundantly clear: Higher education professionals have a different definition of employability than employers themselves, and college programs often fail to align with employer requirements. Most universities are aware that their technology-oriented programs might not line up perfectly with career skills, but few have definitive ways to address that. Fields like software development are incredibly agile and change quickly, rendering it difficult for universities to implement adequate programs and see lasting success. Moreover, employers often require industry knowledge and soft skills, such as interviewing and professionalism, in addition to so-called hard skills like programming. It is often not feasible for universities to address all those factors, leading to the hard truths of unemployment and underemployment. Higher education programs struggle to provide relevant experiential learning or updated course offerings within the framework of a four-year liberal arts degree.

Students, universities and employers have begun to align around a common frustration: Something simply isn’t working in the current model of training and employment in the technology sector—and the problem will not go away without definitive, widespread steps toward positive change.

A story of innovation

But this is not a story of despair. It’s a story of innovation, hope and solutions designed to help graduates succeed.

The NEBHE commission’s report provided strong recommendations calling for increased collaboration and communication with employers, better use of labor market data, improved institutional resources and more. Crucially, the commission highlighted the importance of work-related opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships and career training. Specifically, the report encourages universities to:

  • Increase postsecondary opportunities for work-integrated, experiential and cooperative learning (for example, internships and field placements)
  • Provide access to in-demand digital skills bundles, such as IT apprenticeship programs, that include fundamental IT and coding skills, knowledge of the digital economy, data analytics, cloud computing, technology security and other essential 21st century skills
  • Create policies related to new credentials, including the recognition and aggregation of training and the work experiences of working adults and veterans
  • Establish industry-specific talent pipeline partnerships.

Talent pipeline partnerships, especially for computer science careers, are part of a growing movement in the field: last-mile training. Last-mile training supplements classroom education with practical skill applications and simulated work environments, giving college graduates the hands-on experience they need to bridge that gap.

Going the last mile

Last-mile training programs provide the missing link between education and employment. Opportunities like IT apprenticeship programs enable talented individuals to receive the career-specific training they need—such as coding in the languages and structure required by employers—at specialized training institutions over an intensive few months of courses, projects, experiential learning and job training. For instance, Smoothstack brings qualified applicants to its campus near Washington, D.C., for a 14-week coding program that starts with classes on coding in Java, evolves to training in specialized tech stacks like the cloud platform AWS, and develops skills across scenario-based projects. This training enhances the classroom model of learning with mentors who are current professionals in the field, hands-on projects based on job scenarios, collaborative assignments and industry-based skills training. Essentially, these IT apprenticeship programs provide scenario-based job training in an accelerated and focused course of study, followed by continued mentorship and job placement. It’s a specialized and career-focused supplement to college education. Ideally, last-mile training programs collaborate with all stakeholders—including higher education institutions and qualified employers—to develop robust curricula that ensure students have the best possible opportunities.

Last-mile training also addresses some of the additional obstacles faced by certain socioeconomic groups. The NEBHE report speaks to the importance of employability in creating equity across groups, urging stakeholders to “pursue strategies to increase employability of students and graduates in light of the imperative to dramatically increase the retention and completion of underrepresented populations.” Universities can lessen the disparity in employment for gender and racial groups by leveraging partnerships with equal-opportunity last-mile training, particularly those that offer free skills-based training via staffing programs. These programs provide students with free career training and place them with an employer; the providers ultimately recoup the cost of training through a long-term employment agreement. Because there are no upfront costs, these programs can accept all skilled applicants, regardless of background, socioeconomic status or ability to pay for training. Highly technical training is no longer only accessible to a select privileged few. Instead, these apprenticeships are truly meritocratic, based purely on the skill and work ethic of the applicant. As a result, last-mile organizations that provide IT apprenticeship programs are going a long way toward leveling the playing field for graduates.

It is crucial to understand the importance of that level playing field, especially in STEM, where the NCES has found that 4.4% of black and 3.6% of Latino individuals are unemployed, compared to 2.3% of whites. IT apprenticeship programs can remove traditional obstacles to equity by providing equal access to career-oriented postgraduate training—such as a 14-week program at a specialized institution, with skills courses and hands-on projects—to ensure that all students find employment. Because the programs are heavily career-focused, they can also provide training in soft skills, agile thinking and other intangible qualities that employers look for.

IT apprenticeship programs aren’t just an effective solution to the employability problem—they’re also replacing an existing, inadequate solution. Apprenticeships are a powerful alternative to predatory pay-to-play coding bootcamps, where graduates pay $15-20K for training that comes with no job guarantee and does little to appeal to employers. Unlike bootcamps, IT apprenticeship programs are geared to address that crucial last mile between education and employment.

The latent inequality hidden in that employability gap is a problem that hits close to home for me. My university roommate was an intelligent, driven, skilled student who made the Dean’s List. He should have had endless career opportunities. But he was also a first-generation student, the first in his family to graduate from college, and he didn’t have access to a robust professional network or insider connections to help his job search. He ended up taking a job for $13 per hour—well below what he merited with his skills and qualifications. That story hasn’t gone away: College graduates today still struggle to find fulfilling careers without some outside advantage.

The difference today is that there are solutions in place to help students who find themselves in the same boat as my old roommate. Last-mile training programs are tailor-made to help students overcome the gap between education and employment, especially for demanding and technical careers like software development. That training helps employers and universities, too: Employers are able to hire skilled, job-ready candidates, and universities can ensure that their students find fulfilling, gainful employment in their field after graduation. With IT apprenticeship programs, IT careers are no longer out of reach. University graduates should not have to struggle or settle for low-skilled jobs when they are overqualified, especially with 1.4 million unfilled software jobs expected in 2020.

Universities and organizations like NEBHE have started to acknowledge the gap. Now, it’s time for them to take action by establishing partnerships that set up their graduates for success.

John Akkara is the founder and CEO of Smoothstack, a last-mile organization that provides immersive, comprehensive training and staffing services for the IT sector.

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