What will it take to create the five million apprenticeships in the next five years that President Trump is proposing? Support for the apprenticeship concept is high across the political spectrum, left and right. What have we learned in recent years, though, about the challenges in creating apprenticeships in practice?
A cybersecurity apprenticeship project I’ve followed over the past year in the San Francisco Bay Area offers some answers. This project started with many advantages, including a sophisticated sector-based workforce intermediary, and initial commitments of support from employers. Still, it has struggled to get employers to formally adopt the apprenticeship structure and take on apprentices. It shows the difficulty of going from theory to practice in creating apprenticeships.
The cybersecurity apprenticeship was initiated in mid-2016 by Transmosis, a tech-based workforce intermediary in California and Nevada. Transmosis president Chase Norlin is a tech entrepreneur with a background in digital marketing and deep interest in workforce issues. Norlin’s motivating concept: develop a homegrown tech workforce, and reduce reliance on offshoring of tech positions and on the H-1B visa system. In a column, “The U.S. Must Reshore Not Offshore Jobs,” he explained, “We are creating a world where a handful of senior workers manage a massive low cost labor source overseas to produce and manage our products and services.” By early 2016, the cybersecurity workforce was being heralded as among the fastest-growing workforces — more than 200,000 cybersecurity jobs said to be unfilled and job postings up dramatically over the previous five years.
The apprenticeship both nationwide and in California is a structured process — distinct from the informal use of the term on television and elsewhere. California Governor Jerry Brown has been an apprenticeship advocate since the late 1970s. The Transmosis cybersecurity apprenticeship was pushed forward by a Brown-led initiative to create registered apprenticeships in non-traditional fields.
Transmosis started off quickly, forming an Unilateral Apprenticeship Committee (UAC) of cybersecurity employers, headed by Robi Papp, president of Avantgarde, and including representatives of Symantec, Cisco and the county of Santa Clara. Other major names in cybersecurity expressed interest — FireEye, Palo Alto Networks, Barracuda Networks, McAfee. Transmosis recruited workers who wanted to enter the cybersecurity field and showed affinity, but who lacked four-year computer science degrees or prior experience, and it received over 60 applicants within a few weeks for 15 spaces. It established a four week cybersecurity boot camp for potential apprentices, followed by sitting for the GISF certification. The first cycle completed in April 2017.
Jim Stoch is a 25-year veteran of Silicon Valley staffing and employment services, and a previous co-owner of a recruitment services firm, who was involved early on in Transmosis’ employer engagement efforts. He walks us through the placement process — the general interest in the apprenticeship among tech firms and the obstacles that arose when Transmosis tried to place individual apprentices:
“When I first met with employers in 2016, I found an enthusiastic interest in apprenticeships, as a talent pipeline for the cybersecurity talent that firms were seeking not only in tech, but in financial services, healthcare and government. The Valley has a business culture open to new employment structures.
“However, in April of this year when Transmosis went to place individual apprentices, it found a different dynamic. Placement barriers differed among firms, but they generally fell into three categories.
“First, hiring goes up and down in the Valley, in good times as well as bad. In some cases firms, that initially expressed interest, were on hiring freezes by April 2017, or had consolidated cybersecurity efforts outside of the Bay Area.
“Second, while IT hiring managers might want to bring on apprentices, they ran into a wall with human resources (HR) staff. The county of Santa Clara, for example, had no job category for apprentices, and in government a job category needs to be created before someone is brought on. Similarly, when hiring managers in several private firms inquired about apprentices, HR’s response was that they had no rules or structures for apprentices, as opposed to direct hires, or even internships, which are generally several month career exploration opportunities.
“Third, even with the potential apprentices’ boot camp background and certifications, hiring managers in some cases balked when faced with specific candidates who lacked experience. The same hiring managers who said they were open to apprentices without experience, later were reluctant to take on specific candidates they interviewed who lacked 3-5 years of real world experience. Cybersecurity is a critical task in any company, especially those fighting the bad guys daily, like hospitals and banks, and any miscue can have major ramifications.”
Larry St. Regis, an experienced Chief Technology Officer in the Valley’s financial industry, builds on this point. “Cybersecurity is a top priority for the financial industry throughout the country and world. But IT departments in financial institutions don’t have a lot of leeway or unlimited staff. We all need someone who can hit the ground running, who can help from day one. We don’t have the flexibility to train people, when any mistake can shut down operations or result in major financial losses.”
Jonathan Omansky, senior director of Cybersecurity Operations at Symantec, has been advisor to the Transmosis apprenticeship and sees promise in introducing apprenticeships in cybersecurity. “As a hiring manager, I’m looking for candidates who may not necessarily possess a four year degree or any other particular degree, but are passionate about cybersecurity, with a willingness and aptitude to learn. Given the shortage of candidates, I’m not focused on formal credentials and can see value in apprenticeships for our field.” Even as Symantec has a variety of internships and mentoring programs, though, instituting an apprenticeship requires time and approval by several departments.
The Transmosis cybersecurity apprenticeship is not the only IT apprenticeship that is encountering the obstacles noted above. The other California IT apprenticeships in development are also finding the process of placing IT apprentices to be a slow one. IT companies are familiar with internships, not apprenticeships. These companies are in need of IT analysts and technicians but also choosy about bringing on anyone without experience. They are wary of any hiring structure that involves government registration, however limited.
Here’s one thought to advance the apprenticeship process in IT and related fields. Very quickly the general high-level discussions of apprenticeships need to come down to the practical level. The time being spent in conferences on apprenticeships is better spent on implementation with specific employers. The best way that apprenticeships can be pushed forward today is by even a few major employers in the near future putting apprenticeships into practice.
To this end, let’s start with the governmental entities who have been advocating the concept: the federal, state and local governments. In the federal government, there are cybersecurity positions not only at Homeland Security, but in the IT departments of virtually all departments. These are all candidates for apprenticeships. Further, the federal government, under first President Obama and now President Trump, is urging financial institutions to create apprenticeships. Why not directly create apprenticeships at the Federal Reserve and at the federal financial regulatory agencies?
Of course, it would be helpful if employers outside government also implement the cybersecurity apprenticeship. In the Bay Area, LinkedIn and Pinterest have established apprenticeship structure; but these are modest in size and outside of the formal apprenticeship process. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff helped spark the call for five million new apprentices, and as an industry leader, Salesforce establishing a formal apprenticeship structure would be influential.
Returning to Transmosis’ apprenticeship program, it is in the process of registering several apprentices with small cybersecurity employers, while it continues meeting with larger employers, and placing the boot camp graduates in other employment situations. Norlin says that Transmosis’ commitment to the apprenticeship approach is a long term one, including constant testing of new employer engagement strategies. It intends to meet its goal of at least 46 Bay Area cybersecurity apprenticeships by the end of 2018. Stoch also says he is in it for the long term, as a project he intends to complete before retiring: “Apprenticeships can lead to employee loyalty/retention and lower turnover, the HR grail for Silicon Valley tech companies,” he explains.
Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute is one of the worldwide experts on apprenticeships. In a recent essay in The Hill, Dr. Lerman praises the Trump Administration’s new focus, noting that it “should be welcome to all who favor a cost effective approach to upgrading skills, raising job quality and widening routes to rewarding careers.” But in thoughts that parallel Transmosis’ experience, Dr. Lerman also emphasizes that new forms of industry engagement must emerge, to translate theory into practice.
By: Michael Bernick