A Nuanced Take on IT Apprenticeships

Old timey work crew

If there's one key idea that's been quietly gathering steam when it comes to addressing the IT skills gap, then it's got to be the notion of an IT apprenticeship program. This approach to learning is more formal than many think, and has a history that stretches back at least to the Middle Ages.


In ancient times, most of the recognized crafts or trades — activities such as brewing, medicine, pottery, and building everything from wagons to ships — required families to turn over their children to a master craftsman for training and development. A typical apprenticeship period would be on the order of 7 to 10 years.


During that time the master provided food, lodging, basic necessities, and (of course) precious knowledge, in exchange for the apprentice's labor. Six-day weeks of 10-plus-hour days were not unusual for an apprentice learning a trade or a craft. Thus, apprenticeship has often carried with it something of stigma, especially for those feeling trapped in the labor-intensive apprentice role.


Be that as it may, the tradition of apprenticeship still holds sway in many trades to this day, particularly those involving construction and infrastructure. Examples include plumbers, pipe- and steamfitters, electricians, installers and repairmen of every stripe, various heavy equipment operators, structural iron and steelworkers, and more.


I've been working in and around IT training and certification since the mid-1990s. During my entire tenure in this field, there's been an undercurrent of conversation and ideas about apprenticeships. Occasionally, there are serious and pointed discussions on this subject, often from industry associations like CompTIA and others,


The gist of such discussion is usually (a) apprenticeship programs are a great idea, and (b) wouldn't it be nice if we could put some together to fill our needs for skilled and knowledgeable IT professional who are truly ready to roll up their sleeves, and get to work? What's too often been missing from this conversation has been the effort and commitment necessary to put a bona fide IT apprenticeship program of some kind together.


Ideally, it would be one that pairs classroom and on-the-job training, where the classroom imparts important concepts, information, and learning opportunities. Interactions with an experienced working professional (the modern equivalent of a master craftsman or master tradesman) would provide practical, hands-on opportunities to put in action one's training.


Apprenticeship Program Takes Shape


In a fascinating pair of articles in a multi-part series for Certification Magazine, long-time community college instructor and information security professional Steve Linthicum explains what's involved in putting an IT apprenticeship program together, attracting students, and reaching out to industry professionals to work with apprentices to help them learn by observing and doing the job in the workplace.


Computer team in discussion mentor and trainees

Here are links to both pieces, with a reminder that Mr. Linthicum plans to add more to this series as his program continues to roll out, and process groups of students called "cohorts." (This term comes to us from demography, and refers to people of the same age and situation, which in this case is groups of 25 students who begin their apprenticeships at the same time, and move through the process as a group.)



What makes Linthicum's coverage of the topic both interesting and compelling is that he digs into the issues involved in making an apprenticeship program work. Thus, for example, he observes that apprenticeship program are a kind of "learn to earn" program


This speaks to the need not just to put apprentices to work — to help them cement and truly absorb what they've heard in the classroom — but also to pay them for their time and labor. True, apprentices tend to earn significantly less than their more skilled and knowledgeable professional counterparts (usually referred to as journeymen and masters).


They do earn something for their efforts and labor, however, and that's an important component of putting such a program together. This requires funding and raises the question of whether, in this modern day, that funding should come out of the master's (or the master's employer's) pocket, or somewhere else.


In his stories, Linthicum mentions a $1 million grant he helped Coastline Community College obtain as one such "other source" of money. I must also observe that in the interests of filling the skills gap and possibly also retooling and retraining displaced workers, various kinds of public monies could also be used as subsidies.


Money from unemployment assistance and other worker compensation programs could support employers willing to take on apprentices, to help them defray the costs of a less-than-optimally productive "employee-of-sorts" who is learning on the job. In that same vein, then, it's also easy to understand how various tax credits to offset apprenticeship costs might further incentivize employers to participate in such programs.


For those interested in understanding more about what's involved in putting an apprenticeship program together and making it work, Linthicum's articles are full of insight. They also report on experiences and lessons learned from a relatively new program that's getting underway.


I hope you'll join me in wishing Mr. Linthicum well in his efforts. In addition, I'm hopeful that the cohorts of apprentices emerging from the program will go on to find great jobs, and do their part in meeting at least some of the many information security needs currently bedeviling employers nationwide.


Ultimately, with the right outcomes and positive experiences to report, other community colleges may follow suit. That would certainly help us as a nation to develop a cadre of skilled and experienced IT professionals to keep the wheels of business, government, and industry turning.


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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.