A year ago, Shawn Farrow worked full time as a mover, hauling boxes for wealthy tech engineers in Seattle. These days, Farrow isn't just lugging furniture for tech workers. He's a tech worker himself.

Farrow is an appren tice engineer, writing code from the comfort of his desk at Avvo, a Seattle tech firm. He is a fresh breed of tech worker coming into the industry through a new type of training program that is designed to identify talented individuals from non-traditional backgrounds.

"It's more rewarding for me coming to an office and using my brain rather than my physical abilities," Farrow says. "It's a different kind of fatigue, but it's rewarding."

Tech apprenticeships are a fairly new concept in the U.S., but as the Trump administration makes it more difficult for American companies to hire or attract foreign workers, experts predict that more U.S. firms could embrace this type of training program to fill entry-level technical roles.

"Apprenticeships are a terrific way for people to take non-traditional routes and for companies to accept those people," says Todd Thibodeaux, CEO of CompTIA, a tech association focused on helping closing the gap between the industry's talent demands and the work force's supply.

Already, the Trump administration has followed through on the president's anti-immigration campaign rhetoric with several actions, most notably its two litigation-encumbered immigration bans. Of greater impact, Trump has suspended an expedited approval process for H-1B visas, which the tech industry often relies on to bring highly talented foreigners to the U.S. And most recently, the administration issued a clarification on the wording of the program, stating that being a computer programmer alone "is not sufficient to establish the position as a specialty occupation."

We've yet to see the exact impact this clarification will have on the next wave of H-1B visa applicants, but many in the tech industry are expecting this action will make it more difficult for lower-skill foreign tech workers -- such as junior developers, network administrators, and quality assurance specialists -- to receive documents necessary to work in the U.S. That is why some now believe that tech apprenticeships could receive a boost in interest from American tech companies.

"One of the biggest barriers is that employers must be willing to accept the idea of apprenticeship programs," says Charles Eaton, executive vice president of social innovation at CompTIA. "Regardless of the H-1B program, the tech industry is still having to find talent. They are right now hiring from each other. Most of those job openings are filled by people who already have jobs."

Already, companies like Yelp, Pinterest, and Atlassian have dabbled in apprenticeships as a way to get more women and people of color into their engineering ranks. Regardless of the fate of the H-1B program, which brings in about 100,000 foreign workers to the U.S. each year, the talent shortage keeps growing. By the year 2020, as many as one million programming jobs in the U.S. could go unfilled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Changes do suggest that companies are going to have to be more innovative in the ways that they go about finding talent for junior-level and entry-level programming positions," says Jeff Mazur, vice president of partnerships at LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization that runs an apprenticeship program.

LaunchCode, which has been around for three and a half years, claims to have started 700 tech careers through its programs. The organization identifies talented individuals who have taught themselves tech skills through non-traditional routes, such as coding bootcamps, self-teaching, or LaunchCode's own courses. The organization vets the individuals by interviewing them and having them take a technical assessment. If they pass, LaunchCode will recommend them to its employer partners, of which there are 400, including companies like Boeing, General Electric, and Riot Games, Inc.'s 2016 Company of the Year.

"The tech industry relies heavily on candidates with four-year college degrees, and if we continue to rely entirely on those candidates, we're never going to close the gap," Mazur says.

Among the fastest growing tech apprenticeship programs in the U.S. is Apprenti. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Labor in 2015 provided the funding that was used to create this pilot apprenticeship program through a grant that draws its money from fees paid for H-1B visas. Apprenti works with notable Washington tech companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, to get workers like Farrow into the industry.

Apprenti, which launched in September 2016, identifies and vets talented individuals, with priority given to women, minorities, and veterans. The program then recommends apprentices to companies as their needs arise. Individuals involved with Apprenti are qualified to be trained for roles as software developers, web developers, project managers, Windows systems administrators, Linux systems administrators, network security administrators, and database administrators. The apprentices undergo multiweek training, and if successful, they are given a yearlong contract by their companies, which pay Apprenti a placement fee.

Thus far, Apprenti has placed 40 apprentices, with plans to expand. At its creation, the goal was to place 600 apprentices in Washington by 2020. Accelerating that, Apprenti is franchising its model and planning to expand through other nonprofit organizations around the country with the goal of nationally placing at least 450 apprentices annually starting this year.

For the companies, the benefit is they bring someone who they can mold to their preferences at a financially friendly salary of $45,000 a year, says Jennifer Carlson, the executive director of the Washington Technology Industry Association Workforce Institute, which operates Apprenti.

"The company gets that financial benefit, the individual gets that training to become successful, and we've now created another body for the industry," Carlson says.

Published on: Apr 11, 2017