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Can Apprenticeships Help Close U.S. Skills Gaps?

Loyda Villate was happily building a career as an architect when the global economy collapsed in late 2008. The Chicago firm where she worked laid off 40 of its 100 staffers, including her. What was her next move? “I wanted a career with more job security, so I decided to go back to school and learn something new,” she says now. “I asked a friend of mine in tech, and she told me, ‘Go into cybersecurity. There are never enough skilled people to go around.'”

That proved to be a good career change. Fast forward to the present, and Villate is now an analyst on a cybersecurity team that works with internal customers at Accenture. The company signed her up while she was studying for an information-technology certificate at Wilbur Wright Community College in Chicago, through an apprenticeship program Accenture launched in 2016.

So far, about 350 novice techies have joined Accenture as “earn while you learn” apprentices. The company recruits promising talent mainly through community colleges, then pays them while they add further, job-specific training to the basic tech skills they’ve acquired in school. After six months to a year as apprentices, they’re hired as full-fledged employees.

It’s catching on. Accenture has expanded its apprenticeship program beyond Chicago to Atlanta, Boston, Columbus, Detroit, San Antonio, Seattle, San Francisco, and elsewhere. The company expects to have trained a total of 450 apprentices in 20 U.S. cities by 2020. “We’re proving that apprenticeships can be scalable,” says Julie Sweet. Formerly CEO of Accenture North America, Sweet took over as CEO of all of Accenture on September 1st, making her the latest addition to the tiny list of just 15 women who head Global 500 companies.

Accenture‘s basic model for apprenticeship programs, which started as Sweet’s brainchild, “can be adapted not only for IT jobs but for a range of other roles that all big companies need to fill,” she says. Besides cybersecurity, data analytics, and software engineering, Accenture is now training apprentices in other areas like HR, finance, and marketing.

Sweet sees apprenticeships as having the potential to solve two problems at once. First, and most obvious, the training helps narrow the skills gaps that make it tough for employers to fill jobs. Beyond that, though, is a much broader and thornier social issue (not to mention a political hot button) often referred to as the Digital Divide: technology has split the economy in two, with most “knowledge workers” thriving —and getting more affluent— while the less privileged fall further and further behind.

“There are whole segments of the population being left out of the digital economy,” notes Sweet. “So there is a pressing need for more inclusiveness.” To address that, Accenture’s apprenticeship recruiters focus on finding bright people from diverse backgrounds who want to cross the Digital Divide but can’t necessarily afford a four-year degree.

Apprenticeships have long been a staple of the skilled trades in construction and manufacturing, of course, but the white-collar kind is “still in its infancy,” Sweet says. She’s become an evangelist for the idea. In 2017, with Greg Case, CEO of Aon, Sweet cofounded a group called the Chicago Apprentice Network that has brought on board 25 new members in just the past year. Those companies, which include heavy hitters like McDonald’s, Zurich Insurance, Walgreens, and JP Morgan Chase, plan to sign up at least 1,000 apprentices by the end of next year.

In the meantime, Accenture and Aon published an apprenticeship “playbook” that offers insights, best practices, and nuts-and-bolts tips that any company can use to design and launch its own program.

For aspiring techies and others who want to leapfrog the Digital Divide, getting marketable skills can lay the foundation for a solid long-term career path. But apprentices do pretty well in the short term, too. Consider: The average salary of a new employee who has just completed an apprenticeship is about $50,000, with no student debt, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Median salary of a recent graduate of a four-year college: $44,000 —with an average of roughly $30,000 in student loans to pay off.

Given stats like that, it’s not surprising that apprentices-turned-employees are often enthusiastic recruiters. At Accenture, erstwhile architect Loyda Villate urged three of her former community-college classmates to apply for apprenticeships. They did and were accepted, so she’s now an informal mentor to all three. Villate also mentors high school girls interested in tech careers, through the national nonprofit Girls Who Code. “It’s important for girls to have female role models in tech,” Villate says. “They can ask me things they wouldn’t ask another adult, like a parent.”

Who knows? In time, apprenticeships might be one way to help narrow not only some skills gaps and the Digital Divide, but the infamous IT Gender Divide as well.

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