Problems in Paradise – The Apprenticeship Challenge

I’m a huge supporter of apprenticeship programs because I’ve seen the opportunities these programs create for career changers, beginners, and life-long learners, but there are challenges companies should consider in the planning stage. As Dave Hoover said, “not many people talk about apprenticeships being harmful, but they can be if not done correctly.” In thinking about this statement he made in the recording of a podcast I interviewed him for (to be released later next month!), I wanted to know more. What types of challenges did companies face when building an apprenticeship program and what should companies be thinking about before getting in knee deep?

Common Challenges Companies Face

Challenge #1: Time vs. Financial Investment
I’ve witnessed companies that struggle to afford software developers turn to apprenticeship programs to meet their skill demand, but what was often overlooked in that decision was the required time investment it takes. Any given team and engineering manager has to understand having a junior person on the team is going to require a certain amount of coaching and teaching. Whether investing financially or with time, there is an investment that has to be taken into consideration.

For Digital Bridge Solutions, they needed talent that wouldn’t break the bank as they scale their team to meet business demands. Yet they knew that in building an apprenticeship program they needed to be prepared to invest an adequate amount of time to get their apprentices up to speed, Joseph Purcell, Senior Developer and lead for Digital Bridge Solutions’ new apprenticeship program explained.

Meanwhile, almost every engineering team at Signal has junior people on it. Shinji Kuwayama, VP of Engineering said, “it’s just expected partly because it’s a practical way to ensure we’re scaling and because it’s good for senior engineers too. One of the ways to keep the skills and communication competency high is to be continually teaching people.” Still, it’s an investment and sometimes your company will need to opt for the financial investment up front for more senior developers in order to more effectively invest the time in more junior talent. Though on the flip side of that, if you’re only hiring senior candidates, you’ll be paying higher premiums and fight harder to retain those developers long-term.

“While it is a financial investment to build an apprenticeship model, the sense of responsibility has an equivalent and sometimes heavier weight, for me personally (and for many of us who were and are involved with the program at Detroit Labs). From a business perspective this may or may not outweigh the financial risk but what [Detroit Labs] found as they got through the first and second program is that they had a bigger responsibility for helping someone be successful in their new career.” Erika Languirand, Director of Training & Development at Detroit Labs said. She recommended that leadership needed to be prepared to take on that individual responsibility and while it can be hard to quantify, and most definitely filled with warm and fuzzies, if you embrace it and provide that support, that’s where the magic happens.

Challenge #2: Senior to Apprentice Ratio and Cadence
As I broke down in the last article, structure is essential to the success of the program, and while you should expect to learn a lot through trial and error, there still needs to be a planning process for determining that structure. Part of the structure that presents challenges for companies is determining the right ratio of apprentices to senior developers and the cadence at which you hire.

Detroit Labs has a pretty dynamic apprenticeship program with three months of curriculum that supports several apprentices in each cohort. Erika has traveled around the world speaking about how to build apprenticeships. She told me that it’s not uncommon for her to hear, “this sounds amazing, but we don’t have the time or the money.” She went on to explain that “what people need to understand is that you don’t have to do it the way Detroit Labs does it.” That cadence, style, and size works for them, but companies could take on two apprentices twice a year. Which is exactly what several of the companies I spoke to do, and found success with.

Shinji pointed out for teams at Signal, everyone hired on their dev teams wants to do some form of managing and coaching because that expectation is set during the interview process. However, even with that set expectation, there’s still a big difference between 10%-50% of your time coaching daily, so he said it’s important they’re carefully selecting how many apprentices each team supports. Part of what has helped them has been clarifying that they don’t expect the apprentice to help deliver things faster. “There are so many other advantages to having apprentices on a team, but that is a place we had to specifically clarify to give managers the space and time to coach,” Shinji said.

Challenge #3: What to look for
Okay, so you got your structure down, have a plan in place to tackle the first two challenges, now you’re ready to interview! But… in recognizing these candidates will all be limited in their applicable technical experience, what are you actually looking for and evaluating them on?

The biggest thing Erika is always looking for when hiring at Detroit Labs is GRIT. She wants to see when the candidate runs up against a problem they don’t know how to solve, they light up, dig in, and try to figure it out. “Being a developer means being wrong 80% of the time, so seeing how people deal with and respond to problems that are going to be challenging has a weight on who we hire. There needs to be a limitless sense of curiosity, eagerness to learn, persistence to stick with it when it gets hard.”

Adam Lupu, Learning Architect and Consultant to Andela pointed out that, “many of their apprentices were in fact technically minded and very capable of solving problems, but some of them didn’t have any professional experience programming,” so they looked for people that demonstrate a learning mindset.

“The apprenticeship model is all about doing and applying learned knowledge from the beginning. [8th Light] is very focused on project-based learning so it’s important to find people who truly demonstrate a love for learning and humbleness around not knowing something,” Ryan Verner, a Software Developer and Director of Software Education at 8th Light , said.

This is why similarly to Shinji’s point in the first post,  “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,” the interview process sets clear expectations for evaluating potential apprenticeship and junior candidates. If you’re not sure where to start with that, companies like 8th Light and Andela have consulted a number of clients in building a program that works best for their specific team and environment.

I definitely don’t want to deter anyone from considering the implementation of an apprenticeship program, so don’t be discouraged by these challenges. Up next, I’ll walk you through the results and lessons learned.


2 thoughts on “Problems in Paradise – The Apprenticeship Challenge”

  1. Our company, Techtonic Group, also has a Department of Labor Registered Software Developer Apprenticeship program. I agree with all the points you pointed out in your 3 articles. We need more apprenticeships across the country to fill the growing demand for software developers and to give individuals an alternative path into tech. Your points are spot on!

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