EMBRACING APPRENTICESHIPS 2.0
And other lessons learned during the pandemic
Charles D. Morgan
CEO, First Orion
DESPITE THE MANY hardships of working during the COVID crisis, the experience taught us several valuable lessons. Originally when we thought about IT apprenticeship programs, we said, “Well, yeah, recent college grads need a little boost before they can turn what they learned in college into a useable skill.” After that, we began looking to apprenticeships as a way of filling our existing skills gap, finding workers with the right aptitude and paying them to learn while fulltime team members. That model has proved to be a game-changer for employers and workforces throughout the nation. But until the pandemic, I don’t think we really knew just how effective apprenticeship programs can be for technology jobs.
Our company, First Orion, is growing fast, and we had a really hard time finding new people to work during the pandemic. At the same time, we learned that we were able to do a whole apprenticeship program remotely. So while traditional hiring was becoming problematic, apprenticeship programs were presenting us with possibilities and options that we needed in order to grow.
Increasingly, dynamic companies—especially tech companies—face a once-unanswerable question: How can we move into a new technology space in a challenging tech hiring environment, and still have a chance at being successful? For many reasons, on-the-job learning can be a long and painful process for both the employee and the employer. And then you have pure training programs, which also aren’t very efficient. For us at First Orion, the old ways of educating employees to become proficient at the jobs they were hired for entailed their following me or other leaders around while we haphazardly gave them real-life problems to go tackle.
But apprenticeship programs offer a very organized approach to learning by doing. I’ve personally come to believe that apprenticeships are no less than a whole new concept of learning. We can teach almost anything this way.
I SAID AT the outset that we learned multiple lessons from the pandemic. One huge insight is that being completely out of the office is a terrible idea. It can create all kinds of challenges for creativity and teamwork and the ad hoc sparks of brainstorming that happen whenever smart people spend time together. We had a meeting this morning, and there were two of us in the office and three joining via a video call. In my experience, people sitting in remotely can have a hard time being full participants in the meeting. That said, hybrid meetings are a whole lot better than all-remote meetings.
In fact, there’s a compelling argument to be made for a hybrid approach to working in general. We try to have our important get-togethers in the Tuesday-through-Thursday block, keeping Mondays and Fridays free for heads-down work, many times remotely. Our people like the flexibility of working direct with the team several days a week, and then having that private time to really focus on the nitty gritty of the projects they’re responsible for. We’ve also moved our New Hire start days to Tuesdays, which has worked out well for everyone. And from a purely business standpoint, as we consider adding more office space, I can stretch out the very expensive resource of brick and mortar by not having to build as quickly if people are effectively sharing work stations in a hybrid model.
But every situation is ripe for learning, and today the smart leaders know that the time is past when you can just order people back to the office. You have to give them reasons to want to be there—and not just reasons to return to the office, but reasons for wanting to work for your particular company. We never mandated a return, but we ensured that we were ready and had what our team members needed when they did return—and they have. Work flexibility, such as the hybrid work week I described above, is one attraction. Another is the availability of Registered Apprenticeships.
Over the past three years, First Orion has put close to 100 people through our apprenticeship programs, and among the graduates of those programs we’ve seen a 96-percent retention rate. Employees today are looking for value-adds, and we’ve found that apprenticeships are a real inducement for talented people to continue building their skills.
What this means is that offering apprenticeships helps companies recruit, because you’re partnering with your new hires to help them develop their potential. At the same time, you’re developing your own potential as a company. With technology changing and being outmoded so quickly these days, it’s almost impossible for growing companies to hire the particular skills they need in order to keep moving forward. Over the past couple of years, we’ve learned that Registered Apprenticeships can be a robust strategy for growing and tailoring your own in-house talent to meet incredibly complex and ever-changing challenges of a shifting marketplace. This is why some very large and important companies are now talking about bringing in scores of apprentices and are hiring executives in charge of alternate recruiting and training strategies.
At First Orion, we know that one of the major problems for businesses of all categories and sizes is getting potential customers to simply answer the telephone. To address that obstacle for clients in various fields, we’re getting ready to embark on a major Business-Platform-as-a-Service initiative aimed at expanding our suite of offerings in our branded communications platform. We’ve been building the software for a year and a half now and we see this as the strategic path to dramatically growing our business. We’re looking to add some 200 people in the next couple of years as part of this initiative.
If I had to guess, I’d say we’re probably going to be training 40 apprentices over the next 12 or so months. Network and software engineering will be a major focus—people who can develop applications for the exchange platform that are API’s and plug-ins. And since we’ll be expanding our number of business clients, we’ll be training people in what I call technical sales support—technical engineers who have also been trained in communicating with customers. They can talk to people in sales language but also with a depth of technical
If we were to rely on traditional recruiting tactics, we could hire good people, but (a) we might have to spend three or four months finding them and bringing them in, and (b) once onboard, they wouldn’t be productive for a long time because they still wouldn’t know our company and the particular requirements of what we’re doing. Getting the skills we need is always the issue.
But by bringing in high-caliber recruits and putting them through intensive three- to four-month apprenticeships in multiple skill categories of a very complex tech environment, we can create our own finely tailored tech talent and have them contributing meaningfully in a fraction of the time it would take the old-fashioned way. And all while benefiting from our People First culture.
We’ve known about the value of Registered Apprenticeship programs since our first cohort in July 2018, but I firmly believe that the pandemic showed us an extra dimension—or two—of apprenticeships’ potential. Today, that 96-percent retention rate among our apprentices seems more important than ever. In that context, I’ve come to see Registered Apprenticeships as both a solution for existing business and a longer-range, employee-enhancing strategy for building in-house skills for achieving success in any number of new technology spaces. This is what I mean by “Apprenticeships 2.0”. It may seem like a small insight, but, to me, we’ve ever-so-slightly turned the knob of a kaleidoscope and now can see old patterns in fresh new ways. I guess the pandemic was good for something after all.