The Apprenticeship Report: September 2019

A half green and gray image that says "The Apprenticeship Report."

Lonnie Emard,
Apprenticeship Director,
Arkansas Center for Data Sciences (ACDS)

WHEN I THINK about apprenticeships, I sometimes imagine two “opposing forces,” if you will. One is the traditional connective tissue of organizations—government, educational, corporate—that, working together, champion and implement the strategic concept of apprenticeships and their vital impact on the workforce readiness of the 21st century.

But then 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 Arkansas, 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 adjust our traditional ecosystem so that it makes a place for every one of those “non-traditional” computer lovers throughout our state.

Why would we do that? I referred to these two “opposing forces” earlier. It’s clear why the partnership of corporate, educational, and government is a force. What’s maybe not so clear is how important a role these computer-loving 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, and it makes no sense for them to continue to be an “opposing” force.

Think of it this way: Every K-12 student in Arkansas is taking a four-course sequence in computer science. While that doesn’t mean that all of those students will want to “opt-in”—in other words, pursue an IT career—it does mean they’re earning credits in computer science that can be useful down the line, should they change their minds. Whether they’re focused on career and tech education or a more generalist route with electives, certain students can actually begin earning industry certifications in things like network, systems admin, cyber, and so on, as high school students.

But if they do decide to opt-in and yet not go down the traditional path of college, what do they do? Where do they go? They become, in our present nomenclature, “non-college goers,” and there are a whole lot of them. So do they simply work at McDonald’s while continuing to write code and tinker with the computer they love in their off time? Or do we shift our thinking and start to consider these young people, from the age of 18, as pre-screened candidates for apprenticeship programs?

Traditionally, what we’ve done—what corporate America has done—is require either a four-year Bachelor’s degree or a two-year Associate’s degree in some category of IT, and we at ACDS believe there is certainly a place for that. These traditional students will be building on top of what they’ve already learned in high school, and we definitely want to continue to grow the numbers of our traditional students/candidates.

But considering that our state has 10,000 tech jobs available and only 400 tech grads each year, doesn’t it seem logical to also make a viable path for these non-traditional students? The question is, how do we do that?

We change our thinking, and we change our systems. We go to corporate Arkansas and say, “How can we adjust job descriptions to make way for these non-traditional workers? Can we begin to recognize work experience as equivalent to a degree?” And we talk about how apprenticeships fit into this shift in thinking. Apprenticeships are the very expression of this new model—apprentices are hired with less than the required skill set, but they’re being productive even as they’re being trained in that skill set.

Today these non-traditional workers have a big advantage simply because of ACDS. We have the ability to track these young people through their K-12 classes. In Arkansas, as in some other states, students are given individual development tests in 9th grade, and the schools also take interest assessments along the way. But, from the standpoint of industry purists, we at ACDS can give these students a more rigorous, more targeted assessment to determine their analytical skills—math, logic, pattern recognition—as well as their soft skills—behavioral analysis and emotional maturity.

We’re already doing these assessments with career changers, incumbents, and the military; in other words, this is the standard, across-the-board assessment that we use to determine if someone should be pursuing an IT-related career. The beauty of this is that now these non-traditional candidates don’t have to start at Ground Zero. ACDS will be able to document their history and growth, giving us the ability to present this vast alternative talent pool to our companies and corporations with qualifications equivalent to educational attainment.

Will it be difficult? We know that some purists will still insist on the traditional hires, and that’s fine. But more and more, especially in smaller companies, we find people in leadership who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, in a sense, and they can relate. And in the small- and medium-size companies that are entrepreneurial in nature, they really get it. They know that ability isn’t about a piece of paper; it’s about whether they can give a person an assignment and that employee can go to the keyboard or the back end of the server and do the job.

More and more, that kind of thinking helps define the meaning of tech skills today. And at ACDS, we’re placing this apprenticeship model smack dab in the middle of the immediate tech demand, and we’re reaching down to find people to meet that demand right where they are. We want everybody to be part of the Arkansas success story.