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Reskilling for Tomorrow: Apprenticeships

You don’t have to come in with a degree in that field. You’re coming in with that desire to learn, that curiosity, that growth mindset.

Kelli Jordan, Director of Career and Skills at IBM

A recent Washington Post piece analyzed the looming skills gap in the American economy and offered a few ideas on how to raise the number of qualified workers. Major tech players like Pinterest, AirBnB, and LinkedIn are hiring first and training later, preferring a mix of on-the-job training and talent acquisition based on the company’s most salient criteria for employment. In many cases, such positions in the tech industry require a mix of soft, hard, and technical skill sets. IBM identified many of these problems years ago, and as such, began to devise a new approach to apprenticeships that could help meet the changing American economy.

Featured Interviewee: Kelli Jordan, Director of Career and Skills at IBM

Kelli Jordan is the director of career and skills at IBM. She leads the company’s approaches to skill growth, including their New Collar Initiative and IBM’s US Apprenticeship Program. She has worked in the personnel and recruitment sectors at IBM for 16 years, where she began as a human resources intern.

Jordan graduated from Cornell University in 2002 with a BS in industrial and labor relations. In addition, Jordan was instrumental in onboarding and operations for IBM as they began to devote more resources to their New Collar pathways. She was also a talent leader in New Collar Initiatives from January 2017 to January 2019.

Partnering with the US Department of Labor

The idea that apprenticeships have value in industries beyond manufacturing or traditional union frameworks is gaining traction in the American economy.

“Apprenticeships in the tech industry are still a relatively new concept. In the US, apprenticing has historically been associated with a trade,” says Jordan.

Jordan’s company has spent the last few years shifting resources to this new type of apprenticeship. IBM’s programs can provide an emphasis on new collar roles that are competency-based. “I think it’s something that industry is just now starting to understand and we’re really glad to be partnering with so many companies to help them adopt that model,” says Jordan.

The concept of the registered apprenticeship is an educational model that’s owned and operated by the US Department of Labor. They are built, maintained, and conducted by officials who vest authority in corporate partners like IBM to lead skilling and reskilling efforts across the country.

“Our program is a Department of Labor registered apprenticeship program. It started in October of 2017,” says Jordan. “What that means is that as an apprenticeship program—as a company—you have gone through a process to outline and detail what your program looks like.”

Partnering with the DOL extends the logistical expertise of the federal government to many of the operations frameworks already in place: “There’s a standard for your program, so it’s a stamp of approval that says we’ve got really great learning, we’ve got a great path to demonstrating success in that role,” Jordan adds.

When it came to constructing a program to meet the needs of a tech workforce, IBM had a lot of work to do. Jordan and her team spearheaded research initiatives to figure out the best approach: “There are very robust apprenticeship models that exist in Germany and in the UK, so these helped to really think about what might make sense for us here in the US,” says Jordan. “We did rely very heavily on our own internal methodologies around learning, but we’ve been evolving the program as it’s grown over the last 18 months.”

In the process of registration, those who complete an IBM apprenticeship pathway are issued a certification by the US Department of Labor. “That has really allowed us to ensure that our program is strong, ensure that it has the support of the Department of Labor. And we’ve been able to take that and leverage that robustness and that review into other partnerships.” And IBM is not the only company to forge new coalitions in other corners of the industry.

In fact, a further example of public-private partnerships are the connections that IBM has made with certain trade associations. “The work that we’re now doing for the Consumer Technology Association is on the Apprenticeship Coalition,” says Jordan. “We partnered with them to help other companies set their own apprenticeship programs because we were getting a lot of questions like, ‘What does this look like? How did you do it? We don’t know where to start.’”

The Apprenticeship Structure

The details of what each apprenticeship program entails vary, but all the lesson models use a new collar mentality as a jumping-off point. “They’ve got a learning track that’s particular to their specific roles, whether that’s cybersecurity, software development, or mainframe administration,” says Jordan.

This means a good deal of hands-on tech and problem-solving projects, which hone the apprentice’s ability to communicate effectively and work in a team-based environment. “Each apprentice, on average, does about 250 hours of instruction. Some of the roles may have a little bit more, some may have a little bit less,” says Jordan.

“They’re assessed by the managers and the mentors. So each competency has a set of assessment criteria to help determine whether an apprentice has mastered them,” says Jordan. “The managers and the mentors are really our subject matter experts there.” These officials, often industry veterans, credential apprentices by granting digital competency badges that act as certifications for specialized tech skills.

“There is the instruction piece that the apprentice completes on their own, whether that it’s in a classroom or through the digital learning we have that supports it,” says Jordan. “We’re very willingly providing our competency framework, our playbook, and a lot of the materials that we’ve developed to support our own programs to help other companies get a leg up in starting their own programs across the industry.”

The cultivation of adaptable, tech-focused skill sets is at the core of IBM’s new collar philosophy—one of many employer-led approaches to skilling the 21st-century workforce.

Tech Re-entry Programs

Recruiters of the future will be looking for up-and-coming candidates in their pipelines that possess a varied and specialized background. But what about those already in the industry who have a desire to reskill? Breaking back into a field after a period spent away can come with its own set of challenges. IBM’s tech re-entry programs attempt to help individuals with industry experience bolster their professional skill set and ease their transition back into the industry.

“With a traditional apprenticeship, you’re coming in and you’re learning a role, sort of new and fresh. We don’t expect you to the have the skills in that particular area,” says Jordan.

But the company’s tech re-entry programs are more like internships for professionals with their own industry experience to contribute: “With tech re-entry, this could be somebody who has five years, ten years, fifteen years of experience but who has stepped away for a while. They generally do have deep knowledge,” says Jordan. “It’s aligned with our overall new collar mission, but it is a slightly different profile of a candidate. For both programs, it’s about giving people opportunities to approach or reinvent their path to employment, whether it’s starting something fresh and new or finding a path back to a company. It’s about creating these opportunities for people who may not have been historically considered for these roles.”

Jordan considers the apprenticeship and tech re-entry programs to be similar in that they are both periods of learning and integration; candidates of both can figure out what skills they might need to brush up on or pick back up. However, unlike IBM’s apprenticeship tracts, the tech re-entry program is not registered with the DOL.

Like many employer-led approaches to reskilling, success means fully taking part in an educational community and being responsive to suggested improvements: “We’ve been adding in experiences and projects based on feedback from the apprentices or the managers.”

The Future of Apprenticeships in the American Economy

The surging interest in apprenticeships means that more corporations will likely turn to models like the one that IBM has put into effect. Companies like Apprenti and Microsoft are building their own hybrid work models from the ground up, as well. There is no doubt that as talent shortages continue to impact the American jobs market, many more companies will establish apprenticeship programs to address emerging new collar roles.

“We’ve really been building it in an iterative manner,” says Jordan. “We spent a lot of time thinking about what are the skills that you are really looking for in an entry-level software developer? An entry-level cybersecurity analyst? How do you measure success there?”

But determining this was no simple task. It meant understanding a candidate’s untapped potential in addition to IBM’s own staffing requirements. The time and resources that the company has directed into its reskilling efforts have produced the adaptable apprenticeship and tech re-entry programs—both of which give candidates an opportunity to retool their skills.

“[There’s] this great opportunity to come in and learn a role from the ground up,” says Jordan. “You don’t have to come in with a degree in that field, you’re coming in with that desire to learn, that curiosity, that growth mindset.”

Kenneth Parker

A graduate of the University of Oregon, Kenneth Parker is sometimes a musician and rarely a poet. His work spans copy editing, feature writing, and dissertation development.