Seeking Tech Talent, Companies Kickstart Apprenticeship Programs

Companies challenged by the shortage of skilled technology staff are using an old-fashioned method -- the apprenticeship -- to recruit nontraditional workers for entry-level roles.

The applicants, many with just a high-school education, are getting months of training in digital skills, including programming languages such as C++, building a pathway to more challenging roles and higher salaries.

"The rapid change seen particularly in high-tech presents a challenge for education to adapt quickly enough. Industry cannot wait and is forced to take additional steps," said Charlie Ackerman, senior vice president of human resources for North America at Robert Bosch GmbH. The Germany-based engineering company and auto-parts supplier is focusing on developing its electric and autonomous car technologies.

As soon as this quarter, Bosch's North American unit, based in Farmington Hills, Mich., plans to kick off a 12- month tech apprenticeship program to train applicants to write code that supports emerging technologies such as driver assistance and autonomous vehicles.

Bosch has included technology training in its German apprenticeships since 2015.

While the four-year college degree remains a top indicator for gauging success, it isn't the only one, especially as need outpaces supply.

Recruiting tech talent was a challenge for about 80% of roughly 2,800 U.S. employers surveyed in 2019 by Robert Half International Inc. The number of software-developer jobs is expected to grow 21% between 2018 and 2028, faster than the 5% average of all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"CIOs are concerned because they are competing with the likes of the big tech companies for the same talent," said James Atkinson, vice president of quantitative analytics and data science at Gartner Inc.'s human resources research and advisory practice.

Bosch plans to train 16 apprentices in fundamentals such as system architecture, design and coding in the C++ programming language, which is useful in engine management and braking systems. They will also spend a minimum of 128 hours training in soft skills, including communication, presentations, collaboration and project management. Applicants must have a high-school diploma.

The first cohort will account for about 5% of the 342 software engineers the company plans to hire this year. Eventually, Bosch expects the apprentice program to grow to 20% to 25% of annual software-engineer hires.

"We have to get over some mental paradigms that we have about recruiting and the standards that we have," said Mr. Ackerman, adding that he had to convince division engineering heads of the benefits of bringing in software engineers without college degrees. Technical experts at Bosch will serve as mentors to the apprentices.

Bosch is registering the apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor, which has set standards for levels of classroom training, job supervision and other metrics specific to a job.

The U.S. wants to replicate Germany's well-known apprenticeship program. The effort comes as Germany itself is struggling to find enough apprentices because young people make up a dwindling portion of the population and many of them are interested in college.

Besides teaching technology skills, some companies are using apprenticeships as an opportunity to diversify their workforce.

U.K.-based bank Barclays PLC (BCS) has taken on more than 100 tech apprentices in the U.S. since it started a program in 2013 to fill technology roles in areas including software and storage administration.

"The apprentice program helps us hire people from the local community who would not necessarily get this opportunity because they've been disadvantaged in terms of getting the education on their résumé to even qualify to apply through traditional methods," said Brian Dolan, managing director for client-facing technology at Barclays Investment Bank, the investment-banking arm.

Barclays (BCS) places apprentices in locations including New York City. Applicants don't need a college degree.

An apprentice who joined recently was trained on Linux and analytics software Splunk. Apprentices take online courses and shadow managers as part of the learning process.

Since International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) started its apprenticeship program in 2017, it has hired applicants including a nurse, a police officer and a nail technician. Applicants need to have a high-school diploma or GED.

The company has hired about 500 apprentices so far and plans to hire more than 450 of them this year, said Obed Louissaint, vice president of talent at IBM (IBM).

The program provides on-the-job training for more than 20 roles, including administration of mainframes, which companies and U.S. states are still using to run legacy applications.

"At the core of building our neural networks and algorithms you may not have an apprentice, but that doesn't mean that on the testing or support side you couldn't," Mr. Louissaint said.

Write to Agam Shah at agam.shah@wsj.com


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