Tech apprenticeships offer a new way for Americans without a college degree or tech background to land a job in the field without going back to school.
The average student loan balance is around $30,000, up from $10,000 in the early 1990s.
Ryan Reed was having a tough time.
The 38-year-old, a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, had been trying for months to land a job in technology, a passion dating to his days as a second-grader disassembling flashlights for fun.
But the former firefighter, who’d suffered a career-ending back injury, didn’t have a college degree - a formidable roadblock in the industry. With five kids to support, he couldn’t afford to go back to school.
Luck was on Reed’s side, though. In 2018, he found - and landed - a paid apprenticeship as part of a new program at IBM, and was recently hired full-time.
A growing push among tech firms to hire, pay and train apprentices means getting a college degree - and its resulting loan burden - may no longer be a requirement for cash-strapped individuals.
“Going into debt at 40 for $50,000 or $60,000 isn’t a great option when you’re trying to plan for your retirement and college for your kids,” Reed said. “That’s not the kind of change most people can make.”
Apprenticeships have long been leveraged in traditionally blue-collar professions -such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and metal workers -as a way to provide recruits with hands-on training and technical instruction as well as a paycheck.
Now, major firms -including household names like Ford, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Sony Electronics, Sprint, Toyota, Twitter, Visa and Walmart -have started exploring, and in some cases implementing, apprenticeship programs for careers in technology.
These companies are hiring from previously overlooked segments of the workforce -namely, those without higher-education degrees or a previous job in technology -in order to help address a severe shortage of skilled workers in a fast-growing sector of the U.S. economy.
Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO at Tesla, made headlines recently by saying he’d accept recruits without high-school degrees for the firm’s artificial intelligence team.
“Our university system only graduates 60,000 computer science degrees a year,” said Jennifer Taylor, head of U.S. jobs and diversity initiatives at the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group. “Yet, we have well over 1 million jobs in that space.”
The CTA has around three dozen member firms considering apprenticeship programs.
IBM has been a pioneer among the pack. The Armonk, New York-based firm debuted its program in 2017 and, as of last year, had 500 apprentices in the U.S.
Many of them work in some of the firm’s major growth areas, such as hardware, cloud computing and cybersecurity. The program lasts 12 months to 24 months, after which recruits can become full-time employees like Reed, who does in-house technical support for IBM’s corporate clients.
The firm, which employs around 340,000 globally, plans to add about 450 apprentices per year, said Obed Louissaint, IBM’s vice president of talent.
Many positions are located outside California’s Silicon Valley tech epicenter, and thus are available to people around the country, Louissaint said.
“It’s about closing a skills gap and finding an entry point for workers of all types, particularly mid-career workers, into a part of our economy that is booming,” Louissaint said.
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