Capability meets opportunity much, much faster

By Lonnie Emard

Registered apprenticeships are a game changer for both employers and job candidates. In a world in which technology is reshaping businesses by the second, employers can “grow their own” specifically targeted tech talent. And for people preparing themselves for a tech career, the increasing need for tech expertise means that old barriers are being set aside in the interest of widening the available talent pool. Apprenticeships are an idea whose time has undeniably come.

And yet it’s not a slam dunk: Many people—on both sides of the demand/supply equation—still have a hard time getting their heads around the idea of apprenticeships. They’ve been thinking about it in the old way for so long that they can’t break out of that mindset.

I like to say that “at the intersection of capability and opportunity lies the road to success.” Traditionally, though, it took years to arrive at that intersection. Employers stuck rigidly to the stance that for most IT occupations, they wanted their job candidates to have a four-year computer science degree. “We think that will prepare you and give you the exposure to be ready to contribute,” employers said. So for young people who wanted to pursue a tech career, that was just How It Was. For both, then, this idea of the intersection of capability and opportunity was a single point that happened only upon the candidate’s graduation from a four-year university, then upon his/her scoring a job interview at a desirable company, and ultimately upon the company’s offer of a position. It was a long, narrow, and costly path to success.

Not only that, it didn’t really work. It didn’t work because there wasn’t enough of a supply of tech talent graduating to meet the corporate tech talent demand. But quantity was only one of the problems. The other problem was about quality: A four-year college degree doesn’t necessarily equip someone for a tech job. It gets them some life learning and a bit of maturity—all of which is valuable. But just because someone goes through four years of college doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be more productive in a particular IT job than somebody coming in as an apprentice—someone who’s been preparing him- or herself, taking certificate courses, learning on their own or on another job.

The reason four-year degrees might not prepare a candidate in the way an old-thinking employer might wish for is that, traditionally, a four-year education is more theory-driven than industry-driven. At ACDS, we’re trying to address that problem by urging employers who find that that system isn’t working for them to engage with higher education to change the curriculum—to make it more practical, more geared to the needs of industry. Community colleges have made that shift a little bit, but many four-year universities are hesitant—resistant even. “We’re research, we’re preparation, we’re about learning, we’re not a training organization.”

I’m pleased to say that the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has worked with employers to revamp the curriculum, blending business and IT so that grads will have a more practical, hands-on training for what today’s employers are actually going to demand of them. But even so, there still aren’t enough four-year grads to supply industry’s tech demand.

So to me, and to my colleagues at ACDS, the obvious answer is an apprenticeship system. But for that to reach its full potential, two major things have to change: One is a change of mindset on the part of business. The traditional way isn’t supplying enough tech talent for industry, so they have to shift their thinking to reach candidates sooner and earlier in the continuum of tech talent, rather than only after he or she graduates with a four-year degree.

They need to think, I’m reaching a student, I’m reaching a career-changer, I’m reaching somebody who has already determined they can’t afford college. It’s a much broader audience and I’m meeting them earlier in their career path. So what if they aren’t fully equipped when I meet them? I’m making the mental judgment that there are other factors that are important, and the final pieces of the equipping I was already doing anyway. Because nobody comes to a new job knowing all the specifics of the position.

That’s the mindset change we need to see on the employer’s part. But there also needs to be a change on the part of the job candidates too. Like the employers, they have to believe in this new opportunity. They have to see it as real. That’s a hard leap for some, who’ve been told over and over by teachers, parents, and potential employers that a four-year degree is the only way to success. They have to change their thinking: This is a true opportunity, this is attainable, and I don’t have to have a four-year degree to pursue it.

By companies’ moving to this apprenticeship model and saying we’re going to reach out sooner to “non-traditional” candidates, and by candidates’ realizing they don’t have to worry about that four-year degree, all of a sudden opportunity flourishes because the talent pool becomes huge. And that’s what we’re experiencing in Arkansas right now.

BUT THAT’S NOT the end of it—it’s just the beginning. Capability has to rise up to meet opportunity, which means that the people who want to be part of that talent pool have to take initial responsibility for equipping themselves. The equipping comes in two phases: There is the training they have to do to on their own to show that they have the desire and the drive to succeed, plus some familiarity with what it means to work in IT. We at ACDS call this period the “pre-apprenticeship.” There are lots of online courses they can take, at little to no cost, and from which they’ll receive certificates of completion. These courses are important because the potential candidates aren’t just learning about various facets of IT; they’re also learning about themselves, determining, usually through trial and error, which path they want to go down.

They also need to pay attention to what we call the “soft skills”—interviewing, resume writing, the importance of being collaborative. Back in the dark ages of computer science, engineers could do a little bit of everything—they gathered requirements, wrote the code, tested the code, and implemented the code. Today those are all unique occupations that come together in teams. So being comfortable working with others is a key requirement in today’s tech world.

The second phase of equipping comes through the apprenticeship program, which gets to our part of the bargain. But before I explain that, I need to step back and tell what ACDS has been doing while all those would-be apprentices are preparing themselves.

The process begins with ACDS teams fanning out and calling on employers and potential apprentices concurrently. On the employer side, every company uses IT in different ways. A data analyst at Walmart has a completely different job than does a data analyst at Lost Forty Brewery. That means the success of our apprenticeship program requires us to know—and completely understand—the intricate requirements of the jobs the employers are trying to fill. In order to gain that understanding, our Client Development team maintains deep interaction with some 150 employers across the state. If one is looking for, say, a cybersecurity specialist, we have to know specifically what kinds of things that person will be asked to do in that job, for that particular employer, and therefore what skills they need to have.

While this knowledge-gathering is happening on the demand side of the equation, our Talent Acquisition team is busy on the supply side. They are constantly in touch with universities and secondary schools, and in the future we intend to become a presence in K-12 education—such is our long-range plan for reinventing the Arkansas workforce for the 21st century.

But beyond these “traditional” routes to careers, we keep close tabs on various untraditional pipelines as well. All over Arkansas there are organizations that have responsibility for looking out for various groups of people. Local workforce boards—there are 10 of them throughout the state—represent displaced workers, re-entry program candidates, or non-college-goers who might find themselves unemployed or underemployed. And then there are organizations, such as Winrock International, that reach out to underserved populations—people from rural areas, veterans returning to civilian life, minorities, and women. All of these organizations are taking stock of these folks and trying to point them in the right job direction. The idea is to make sure as many as possible are gainfully employed.

ACDS creates partnerships with these organizations, because we’re all about casting a broad net to catch potential tech talent. But if these individual organizations are already trying to assess these people’s capabilities, why do they need ACDS? Well, often they don’t know where the right employers are, or don’t know the particular IT skills a certain employer is seeking. That’s where we come in. ACDS was created to be the state’s “omni IT workforce organization,” the go-between, the facilitator. We’re the hub of the IT workforce supply-and-demand wheel. We link all the spokes.

The next step for the Talent Acquisition team is to screen potential candidates via a phone interview, during which we collect information on education, work history, and past examples of self-learning tech-related tools. We also make notes about personality, inquisitiveness, and “coachability.” Candidates deemed promising are then invited to take our assessment test, which is designed to measure three qualities that are very important to success in IT careers—Logic Reasoning, Verbal Ability, and Quantitative aptitude. This test can be adjusted to include specific job-related questions—for example, coding questions for candidates interested in pursuing software development.

That being said, this assessment is as much about candidates’ “stick-toitiveness” as it is about their analytical capability. Because it takes a while to get through it, and if they punt and say, “Well, this is too hard,” or, “This is taking too long,” then we know they don’t have what it takes to work in IT. Because throughout the tech world, the project mentality is just this way—you’ve got to stay with it, there is no perfect answer, you finally work through it and you get it. So being able to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty is a key aspect of being successful in an IT career.

NOW THE CLIENT Development and Talent Acquisition teams put their heads together—Here are the jobs that need filling, and Here are some well-vetted apprenticeship candidates. This is the moment that ACDS was created for—to match the right tech talent to the right tech job.

It is an intricate process to really understand the difference between what skills and personality traits make for a great developer instead of a great data analyst. We can guide candidates to the best career path for them and their abilities, be it on the hardware side as a network technician, or as someone who works in cybersecurity. These are things that aren’t application-specific but are related more to the general cyber environment as a whole. We’re also ongoing champions of tech talent. If our assessment is that they’re not quite ready, we’ll help them do what they need to do to be ready. Then we’ll help them connect with employers, because this is a whole new paradigm. These potential apprentices aren’t at college waiting for a traditional career placement opportunity. They’re out there in this ecosystem somewhat on their own, but we’re saying, “No, we don’t want you to be on your own. We want you to understand our apprenticeship model, and apply. We’re going to coach you along. We’re going to help you get to that minimum level of capability and then put you in front of those employers.”

For the employers, what we bring to their tables is assurance that they have a partner who understands the specificity of their IT demands, even those that aren’t taught in school, and that we can help lead them to the very tech candidates they need to find. It’s a new paradigm for the employers too. “We want you to come with us to meet these candidates earlier,” we say—”these minorities, these females, these veterans, these career changers.” And the employers have to experience that, a process that they’re not fully used to. “Yeah,” they say, “but is it going to work? Are they going to be able to take the next step?”

And this is where we have to get both sides confident that what we’re putting in the middle is this skill building, the apprenticeship training component that’s going to be spot-on. It’s going to be customized exactly the way employers need it to be. They have control over the curriculum. We make sure it’s integrated so that the employees—the now-apprentices who are already hired and are earning while they’re learning—are going to get two things at once. They’re going to get very targeted, specific classroom learning about tech skills; and at the same time the company will be providing on-the-job training to give these new employees the corporate context they need. If they’re being taught a particular coding language or specific techniques about data analytics, it’s because that will be applicable to the company and the job they’ve already been hired for. The employers win because they get productivity faster, and the candidates win because they get paid training to prepare them for a successful tech career.

WHENEVER I’M ASKED to describe the apprenticeship process, I inevitably summon up the image of a “three-legged stool.” The first two legs on that stool are employers and apprentices. And the third leg? It’s training. Without proper, proven training, the whole registered apprenticeship concept collapses. Training is the glue that holds this particular supply and demand together.

Let’s say that several employers are looking for cybersecurity talent, as is increasingly the case today. It makes sense then for ACDS and its training partners to devise a cybersecurity apprenticeship program during which these apprentices will be trained not only in general aspects of cybersecurity, but also in the specifics of the employer/sponsor. But how can we be sure of this? We become the experts by going to the experts.

For a recent cybersecurity apprenticeship program, ACDS approached the American Cyber Alliance (ACA) to become the training provider. ACA has access to some of the best minds in the cybersecurity field, people who aren’t just instructors but who have worked in the profession, whether for the Department of Defense or the military or in private business.

That’s a great example of the kinds of experts we’re working with to provide skill training for apprenticeship programs in the state of Arkansas. But our job doesn’t stop at just bringing their expertise to bear on our training programs. We evaluate whether or not their material is current, especially if they’ve taught such courses over and over. We want to be the conduit to the most current requirements and to make sure they add cutting-edge training to their curriculum. We also want them to provide labs and the kind of an environment that simulates, as closely as possible, what a person is going to be doing on the job.

With ACA, before we started the cybersecurity training, we brought in some employers to look at the curriculum built by these experts. The employers had a chance to tweak it—“a little less of this, a little more of that.” This way, we ended up with an agreement by multiple businesses that our training aligned with their needs, meaning that our apprentices will be more likely to assimilate easily into their organizations and become productive as quickly as possible.

We call groups like ACA our “training partners,” and we’re partnering in the same way with such organizations as the University of Arkansas Global Campus in NWA, which does continuing education, the Arkansas Coding Academy in Conway, and ASU-Newport in Northeast Arkansas. There are two good reasons this model works so effectively: One, it’s employer driven, and two, ACDS acts as the evaluator to ensure that our apprenticeship programs are teaching the right skills. This way the companies start with something that’s proven, something they can trust.

More and more Arkansas employers are telling us that we’ve changed their thinking about opening their door to a broader population, but that their recruiting processes aren’t yet set up to reach those populations and those candidates effectively. So once again, we’re the hub. And in matching up that broader supply with the specific demand, we can help gauge if a candidate ought to go down this path or that one.

For you students and soon-to-be-grads, all of this is very good news indeed. While everyone is for producing more traditional four-year college tech graduates, a big piece of my heart goes out to those “non-traditional” computer lovers throughout our state. I think about the high school kid in, say, Dumas, Arkansas, who loves her computer and is intrigued by the capability that sits behind the screen of her smartphone. But she can’t afford to go to college and doesn’t really know what she’s going to do with her life.

There are passionate kids like that all over our state, and I don’t want to see them fall between the cracks. As someone who’s been working on this apprenticeship issue throughout this country for decades, I know that if we leave kids like that to fend for themselves, we’re going to end up with more failures than successes.

So what we in Arkansas have to do is continue to adjust our traditional ecosystem so that it makes a place for every one of those “non-traditional” computer lovers too. What some people still miss is how important a role these computer-savvy outliers can be to our state’s economic success. Collectively they have tech knowledge and tech drive, they’re young and eager, and they can contribute immediately. They are indeed a force to be reckoned with.

If you’re one of those outliers and you want to talk with someone about an apprenticeship, I invite you to contact our Talent Acquisition team at Your opportunity is knocking.

Lonnie Emard is Apprenticeship Director at the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences.

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