Apprenticeships: The Building Blocks

Apprenticeships are a funny concept to dissect. There is a lot history behind the purpose apprenticeships serve, yet they’re so nuanced in today’s company landscape. Specifically in the tech industry, where software development is a true craft, I’m often surprised that these programs are underutilized.

The demand for software developers is not new, nor will we see it decrease anytime soon as new technologies emerge. Still, there’s a widening? gap between educational institutions (including bootcamps) and the companies hiring these people with technical skills. So why don’t more companies build a structured program that helps close that gap that’s hanging out between theory and application? It seems smart to hire and grow the skills needed internally.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on a hunt to figure this out and while I’ve had the pleasure to observe the growth of several quality apprenticeship programs over the last several years, I’ve never dug into why apprenticeships flourish or flop. Join me as I release a three-part series on what I’ve learned about developing apprenticeship programs.

What does it take?

Step 1: Buy-In
When launching an apprenticeship program, the number one most important first step is getting buy-in from everyone — and I mean everyone — not just the dev team and not just leadership. Everyone needs to be on board. As Ryan Verner, a Software Developer and Director of Software Education at 8th Light explained to me, the whole organization has to understand what the motivation is for building an apprenticeship program, because that mutual understanding is critical for successful deployment. Without it, he said, expectations will be misaligned and ultimately not only will the apprentices be unsuccessful, but so will your team, which will ultimately disrupt the core of your business.

“Support from the entire team will make or break it. Apprenticeship programs require team members who want to answer questions and want apprentices to succeed. Not everyone needs to be a full-time teacher, but empowering the team to have the skills to be good coaches can really make a huge difference on how successful a program is. And that starts with buy in,” said Erika Languirand, Director of Training & Development at Detroit Labs as she reflected on lessons learned from the initial development of their apprenticeship program.

Step 2: Cadence & Ownership

Once there is buy in from the entire team and expectations have been aligned, creating a structure for the program is the next step. Shinji Kuwayama, VP of Engineering at Signal said that the structure of their program matured in tandem with the maturity of the company. Their program was initially developed by their first VP of People, Lisa O’Keefe, and since has evolved through testing things like cadence, feedback loops, and continual evaluation of expectations. Erin Rentenbach, current Talent Acquisition Manager at Signal, explained the evolution of this program has been successful because of the testing and analysis the team has completed. Signal has shifted from hiring apprentices in cohorts to two apprentices every six-to-twelve months, as well as incorporated support systems for almost every team to include an apprentice.

While the cadence varies from company to company, I was intrigued to hear why the varying cadence worked for each specific team. Signal found that shifting their cadence from hiring in cohorts to two apprentices every six to twelve months allowed them to carve out time to talk about career development and be more thoughtful about building a diverse workforce. Detroit Labs got into a rhythm that allowed their team to continuously hire apprentices in small cohorts twice a year. 8th Light hires on a rolling basis to create consistency in knowledge sharing. While smaller teams like that of Digital Bridge Solutions have only ever hired just a couple apprentices so not to overwhelm their ratio of apprentices to mentors while their team is still fairly small.

Regardless of the differences in their structure or the number of contributors to ensure success, all of those that I spoke with agreed that having one person to own the program eliminates inconsistencies and confusion.

Step 3: Feedback
Part of getting the right structure in place for your team includes establishing a tight feedback loop. You’re going to make mistakes, and probably a lot of them, but being prepared with a process in place to assess can help the iterative process.

Erika of Detroit Labs agreed that through her experience she has learned that feedback loops are so important, not just for iterating on the program, but also for quickly addressing concerns for someone’s ability to succeed in the program. There should never be surprises about who gets hired at the end of an apprenticeship program, and communicating with apprentices early and frequently is key.

Frequent feedback and clarity about how you’re going to monitor the progress helps put checkpoints in place. “It can be similar to a performance plan you’d formulate for someone who is underperforming, but more so focused on progress throughout the entire experience, not just ‘here’s where I’m falling behind.’ You may not be fully aware what the apprentice needs until you have these conversations, so it’s important to communicate early and frequently, giving the apprentices an outlet for feedback and regular check-in’s,” Joseph Purcell, Senior Developer and lead for Digital Bridge Solutions’ new apprenticeship program explained.

Feedback should also be based on performance indicators, and not just how one feels about the apprentice. Shinji agreed that “when we are evaluating on social and behavior matters, it’s ultra important to be consistent in how it’s done. In those situations, this is where we should be trusting our instincts the least and use a rubric.”

Moral of the story: the structure matters a lot, but there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in this conversation. It’s dependent on the size of your team, the growth you’re expecting, and the financial, as well as time, investment your team can make to onboard and train apprentices. Building apprenticeships require a lot of commitment from not only the point person owning the program, but also from the entire team.

While I really wanted to initially share the impact apprenticeships have on retention and team dynamics, it became clear almost immediately after beginning these conversations that diving into the planning process needed to be the first step. These companies are all at different stages with their apprenticeship programs, and it’s been eye-opening to learn more specifics about the systems in place and checkpoints that are used to ensure everyone feels successful along the way.  

Next we’ll dig into the challenges and then wrap it up with the impact and results of lessons learned.

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