This addition to the CompTIA blog is part of a guest series celebrating Small Business Week.
IT companies today operate in an environment that’s both exciting and challenging. The persistent evolution of technology — cloud computing, mobility, unified communications, cybersecurity and virtualization, for example — make technology solutions more accessible and affordable than ever before.
The willingness of businesses and consumers to embrace these innovations has created a bull market for innovation, making IT one of the fastest growing industry segments in the economy — a $5 trillion industry by the end of the decade, according to some projections. But all this innovation and growth may be threatened if our industry is unable to attract well-educated, well-trained professionals.
Experimenting with Apprenticeships
There were nearly 600,000 open IT positions across the country in this year’s first quarter. These open positions run the gamut, from entry-level service technicians to high-level data, networking and security administrators. And no employer is immune. Large, medium and small firms are all vying for a new blend of tech talent.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. For those of us in IT, creative times call for creative measures, particularly when it comes to recruiting new talent. At Atrion Networking, we’ve had great success in identifying and grooming new IT pros through a year-long apprenticeship program. The program includes technical training, customer service and leadership development. We want the new recruits to have the full package.
The program started four years ago. At the time, we had a good number of high-level engineers on staff, but you can’t have just high-level engineers. We needed to build out bench strength.
The first year, we brought in six apprentices. That grew to 12 in years two and three and to 20 this year. We recruit entry-level people who exhibit attitude, aptitude and ambition. They spend the first three months doing classroom and lab work and the next three months in the field under close mentoring and supervision. They continue to meet once a week with the apprenticeship program manager to assure consistent alignment with the program’s requirements.
We give our apprentices the next six months to really define a specialty — what they’re going to do to take the next step into their career. Once an apprentice selects a specialty, a whole new level of knowledge begins to grow. Apprentices advance much sooner than if they hadn’t picked a specialty.
The last piece of the program is a demonstration of excellence, a team exercise where we see our apprentices in the field working together with peers, exposing the way they think and the way they interact. This is what we call the secret sauce; the thing that separates us from other programs. At the end of 12 months there’s a graduation ceremony and our apprentices earn a credential.
Growing the Program, Solving the Problem
Our apprentices come to us from many sources: area schools, organizations like the Rhode Island Tech Collective and Year Up, the U.S. armed forces and even referrals from friends and family. Many of these people are changing careers; they’ve been in one walk of life and that career path dead-ended.
We believe the ability to identify and grow talent is what differentiates us and we’ve invested heavily to do that. But we are limited in how much we can invest: It requires a significant investment in putting those apprentices through this program. We’ve taken advantage of some state funding in Rhode Island and we’ve seen a loosening of funding at the higher levels, thanks in part to the advocacy of CompTIA.
If the government at all levels and other types of programs are there to support us, encourage usa and help compensate us, we could easily double our number of apprentices. With support, we could also look at different types of apprenticeships programs, like sales or marketing. Programmers are in high demand and short supply, too. This type of program can help not only IT services companies like ours, but other private businesses that have the same needs.
I’m sharing this because what we have could be replicated. It’s applicable and relevant for any organization today looking at the talent demands of tomorrow. We need to recharge the IT industry with young and retrained talent. IT is the journeyman trade opportunity of the future: It’s wide open.
Paul Cronin is a senior vice president with Atrion Networking Corporation, an IT services provider that designs, deploys and manages business-driven information technology solutions.