THE BEGINNING OF Fall is always a nostalgic time for me. I grew up in Iowa, and even though my family never farmed, we couldn’t help feeling the whole community’s excitement at harvest time. Fall marked the end of another year’s effort. For an all-too-brief moment, the worry over rainfall, drought, storms, insects, and crop disease was in the rear-view mirror, and a minute or two of celebration filled the air.
Even though my career has been in the field of information technology, I still catch myself quietly marking that harvest time stock-taking. And while I would never compare my daily toil to that of farmers, we at ACDS do practice a kind of planting and harvesting. I’m talking about Registered Apprenticeships.
In the nearly three years that ACDS has been in existence, we’ve gone through various phases in our mission to grow the crop of Arkansas tech talent to meet our employers’ tech demand. At first, we had to do a lot of groundwork, meeting many times with talent-starved employers and talking up the benefits of Registered Apprenticeships as a viable supplemental staffing strategy. When ACDS was formed, in late 2018, very few people understood that apprenticeships could be in areas beyond plumbing, welding, and electrical work. At the same time, we had to educate portions of the Arkansas populace, and not only about the existence of high-paying IT careers here in our state; we also had to convince them that they themselves could earn as they learn as Registered IT-occupation Apprentices.
So there was a lot of preparation, a lot of readying the ground before anything could happen. Starting in late 2019, the first hundred apprentices we placed with Arkansas employers included a much higher percentage of incumbent workers, because companies were a little hesitant to hire new folks. But they knew they needed the added tech skills, so they opted to use the apprenticeship model to advance some of their existing people.
In the first half of 2021—even with Covid and mostly working remotely—we’ve placed more apprentices than we did in the entire previous year. We’re now at 228 Registered IT Apprenticeships in Arkansas, and there’s a much higher percentage of new hires. Companies have had time to see how well the apprenticeship model works, and I think the breakthrough is with the HR departments, who used to only consider people with four-year degrees. But today they need so much tech talent that they’re saying, “Hey, we’ve got to start doing some things differently.” And we at ACDS have shown that we can bring them high-quality people who, even though they don’t already have the tech skills, can be taught the necessary skills—and we’ve proven that we can do the teaching. We’re even starting to work with some of our state’s largest employers, such as Walmart and Tyson—organizations that aren’t used to looking at the types of individuals that we’re bringing to the table.
So we enter this fall season feeling that we’ve turned a corner. We’ve prepared the soil and nurtured the seedlings, and today hundreds of our Registered Apprentices are thriving within Arkansas companies. For us, though, there will be the briefest of harvest celebrations, because our work is ongoing. Each individual candidate for an apprenticeship requires his or her own nurturing, depending on how they score on our ACDS assessment test. Some we place in a “pre-apprenticeship” program comprised of self-paced training, giving them time for a little more seasoning. Others we put in a work-based learning program with one of our partner companies, the idea being to give them real work experience before presenting them to an employer for a formal Registered Apprenticeship spot.
As I write this, we have three candidates who’ve completed their work-based learning micro internship. All three have been hired fulltime as apprentices, so the program is bearing more fruit. We’re planning to complete that process with 18 more potential candidates before the end of this year. Nine are in various stages of their pre-apprenticeship preparation right now, and when some of those are ready, we’ll present them to employers and continue to water the crop.
It is gratifying work, finding and nurturing so many different potential candidates, and then watching them grow and blossom into valued IT professionals. And the best part? For us, harvest time happens throughout the year.