Filling the Talent Gap with a Modern Apprenticeship Program

In the spring of 2018 we found ourselves busy and in need of new talent. But when we posted for the mid to senior level positions we needed to fill, we primarily received applications from entry-level developers. We had previously hired entry-level devs but had trouble with expectation and productivity mismatches, and so were hesitant to bring any of them on as a traditional hire.

Our team had the idea for an apprenticeship program in the back of their minds for a while; Paige had come through an apprenticeship program at Def Method and had a great experience there. We had some interesting prospects in our applicant pool but they weren’t at the right skill level for our hiring need; this seemed like the right time to take the opportunity to skill up some of the promising applicants we were seeing.

Our first step in building the apprenticeship program was to research existing programs; we reached out to the teams at Def Method and BendyWorks to make sure we understood their best practices. We built an apprenticeship model that combined lessons learned from existing programs with the support and structures built in to our existing onboarding processes.

Once we had a plan in place, we opened up applications and were immediately overwhelmed by the level of interest — we shut down the form after eight days, having already received 108 applications for two or three available apprentice spots. After three rounds of vetting and interviews, we selected and brought on the apprentices in the summer of 2018.

The apprenticeship program ran for fourteen weeks and was, by our measures, a great success. All three apprentices had jobs at the end of the program, jobs they were not qualified for before their apprenticeship. We hired two at SmartLogic, and we facilitated connections for the third, who joined the team at Fearless.

Given that the skills gap is a perennial challenge in the tech industry, we wanted to share our success story along with some key factors and takeaways for any other tech teams out there who might be interested in implementing a similar program.

Keys to Success

We believe there were a number of key factors that contributed to our apprenticeship program’s success:

Positioning

One of our goals for the apprenticeship program was to increase diversity on our team. Women and minorities are under-represented in the tech sector; we chose language carefully in our application listing in an effort to get more diverse applicants.

Structure

Our DODO Dan Ivovich planned the apprenticeship in three four week blocks. The first four weeks were tightly scheduled, to make sure that the apprentices got a good foundation and the support they needed to be successful.

The clearly timed structure of the program also meant that our team and the apprentices were all on the same page regarding time to full competency, avoiding the issues we’d had previously with mismatched expectations when working with junior hires.

Demand

Demand for the positions was high and the quality of applicants was good. We were only able to take three apprentices, but clearly the level of interest could have supported a larger volume. A larger team would likely be able to run a larger program, as there’s no shortage of qualified, interested people.

Resources

We had enough work at the time to absorb the up-front costs of running the program, including paying the apprentices and offering them health benefits. We also had enough equipment on hand that we didn’t need to purchase computers, which helped keep our costs down.

Cohort

We were able to start all three apprentices at the same time; this allowed them to naturally form a peer cohort. The apprentices met regularly, checking in on progress, questions, and providing moral support for each other. The natural cohort augmented and complemented the mentoring provided by our team.

Real Work = Real Team Member

The apprentices worked full time on real projects alongside the SmartLogic team. They were treated like team members, not like interns. As one apprentice put it,

I loved that the apprentices were working on projects that other team members were also working on, as opposed to an apprentice-specific side project. That feeling of really contributing in a meaningful way was big for me, and it elevated the program beyond something like an internship.

The apprentices had the same autonomy that SmartLogic’s full-time team members have, with additional support from mentors. By the end of the apprenticeship, the apprentices’ quality of work was high enough that we were able to bill for it, and all of the apprentices were ready for the kind of mid-level position we had set out to hire for initially.

Benefits

For SmartLogic, the benefits of the apprenticeship program are clear. We got two new team members we’re happy with. Of the three apprentices, two were women, another good step toward our diversity goals. Our team members also got the opportunity to grow as mentors. As one developer put it:

Getting to explain things and work through trickier issues together was a great opportunity for me to notice and reflect on what I've learned and how my approach to coding has changed during the three years that I've been working professionally as a software developer.

For the apprentices, the opportunity for real-world experience was crucial. According to one apprentice,

It can be hard to gauge how some tech and tools you use are actually used out in production, but coming in here I was able to see how things are built and actually watch as they were constructed from logic to syntax.

The program gave the apprentices the opportunity to launch a new career. As another apprentice put it,

I think the program gave me a great starting point to begin my career as a developer, regardless of where I were to end up working after the program ended.

A Revenue Neutral Solution for a Real Hiring Need

In the end, we were able to solve for a hiring need and provide an alternative pathway for community members into the development profession . Because we were able to bill for apprentice hours by the end of the apprenticeship, the program was revenue neutral, with the added benefits of contributing to our team’s overall diversity and mentoring skills.

If your organization is facing a similar skills gap in your hiring pipeline, we would highly recommend that you consider running an apprenticeship program. You may find that the team members you’re looking for are there after all, and just need a little structured development to become the perfect fit.

Previous coverage of the SmartLogic Apprenticeship Program:

Pictured: the 2018 SmartLogic Apprentices

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