Editor’s Note: This month’s Apprenticeship Report is written by David Wallace of the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services. A great friend to ACDS, David covered the momentous launch of our initial apprenticeship cohort in NWA and offered it to us, and we gladly accepted. This marks a transition for our Apprenticeship Report, which for the past six months has focused on the business strategy of apprenticeships. Starting in February, we’re going to drill down deeper and publish monthly profiles of individual apprentices. So get ready for some great stories as we kick off our Apprentice Spotlight series!
WHAT DO YOU do when economic development bubbles over to the point that higher education can’t keep up? In Northwest Arkansas, the local demand for qualified IT workers long ago overran the supply, and jobs—good, high-skill, high-paying jobs like software developer and data analyst—are going begging.
That’s why a handful of firms in NWA’s bustling information technology sphere are taking the first steps in applying a non-traditional approach to solve some big workforce problems they have in common. Following last September’s “apprenticeship accelerator” hosted by ACDS and the Northwest Arkansas Council, Movista, Metova, and WhyteSpyder became the first employers to take the plunge into registered apprenticeship training programs. The bet is that these programs will help speed up the closing of the gap between tech talent demand and supply.
“When ACDS brought us together with the other organizations and went through the curriculum review, we were all really seeing the same gaps within our own organizations from a skills standpoint, and the same needs,” says Sarah Brown, Movista Senior Director of Talent Development and Client Training. “I guess it was nice to see all of us kind of have ‘aha’ moments of, ‘Oh, we’re all needing this, so let’s find a way to incorporate that here in our back yard,’ as an apprenticeship.”
The first class—or, apprenticeship cohort—began in mid-December at U of A Global, the distance-learning arm of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, to train some new hires and some existing workers. The nationally recognized apprentice occupation is Software Developer and the role is called QA Tester and Junior Developer, though future cohorts for different employers will likely train for other occupations, such as data analyst, cyber-security specialist, or cloud analyst. The apprentice employees are being exposed to the full stack of IT development in classes they’re taking together two days a week at the U of A Global campus. They then go their separate ways for applied learning on their jobs under the tutelage of a “mentor” assigned by their company.
Some state employers, such as First Orion and Simmons Bank in central Arkansas, have already adopted apprenticeship programs for themselves. But the NWA program represents a breakthrough for multiple companies coming together to share a training program. It is “milestone number one” for ACDS and its goal of training 400 apprentices statewide by the end of 2020.
Movista, a decade-old company that offers (primarily) retailers a suite of end-brand software services, was previously utilizing many of the elements of apprenticeship informally to upskill the best and brightest of their quality-assurance testers into software developer positions. “I would say we have seen through the development of this organization that there can be other routes to being successful in a technological position,” Brown says. “That was not always the attitude. A four-year degree and going through all the coursework and the other things included in that is one route. But I think everyone is kind of seeing that there can be other alternatives to success in technology.”
As the idea of registered apprenticeships catches on throughout the state,
trailblazers like these three employers will be getting plenty of help. The Arkansas Division of Workforce Services supports apprenticeships by funneling training dollars from a federal Department of Labor apprenticeship grant through the Northwest Arkansas Local Workforce Board. The rest of the training costs are covered by ACDS and possibly the Office of Skills Development. The employers are responsible for starting wages and a required pay increase within the first year.
In addition, as the “sponsor” of the statewide registered apprenticeship program, ACDS created and populated a database of candidates to fill the positions and pre-screened them before passing them on to the companies’ recruiting directors. ACDS project managers are also handling the tracking and reporting about the apprentices’ progress that the U.S. Dept. of Labor requires.
Lonnie Emard, a nationally recognized subject-matter expert in IT apprenticeships, became ACDS’s Director of Apprenticeships in the fall of 2019. “Apprenticeship programs are the best way to help employers address their near-term workforce crises quickly,” says Emard. On the immediate horizon for ACDS is a larger second apprenticeship cohort in Northwest Arkansas for Cyber Security, as well as a new program for DXC Technology in Conway to train C/Unix developers. Several additional cohorts are in the development stage.
“What I would say to anyone who’s skeptical is, ‘Please realize just how quickly this thing is going to multiply,’” says Emard. “It starts with eight here, 25 at First Orion, 30 at DXC, and the next thing you know—oh, my gosh—we just did 100 apprentices!”
Those numbers are still down the road, but with the first apprenticeship program in northwest Arkansas, now the ball is rolling and picking up momentum.