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Tech skills gap gives rise to IT apprenticeship programs

In the highly competitive tech labor market, channel partners are formalizing IT apprenticeship programs to cultivate the next generation of IT talent.

Channel firms faced with modern IT talent shortages are increasingly dusting off an age-old system: apprenticeship programs.

It's no surprise why, considering the IT recruiting environment. Gartner this month reported that tech staffing shortages ranked as the foremost concern among senior executives, surpassing "accelerating privacy regulation" and cloud computing. In the realm of cybersecurity, the demand for qualified candidates is dramatically outstripping supply. According to (ISC)2's 2018 Cybersecurity Workforce Study, the global shortage of cybersecurity professionals is verging on 3 million, with North America's demand overtaking supply by 498,000. These conditions among others (see sidebars) have encouraged some channel partners to bypass the highly competitive labor market and use IT apprenticeship programs.

"The No. 1 way we have recruited [in 2018] was through apprenticeships," said Amy Kardel, co-founder of Clever Ducks, a managed service provider (MSP) based in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Amy Kardel, co-founder of Clever DucksAmy Kardel

Clever Ducks helped found the Ticket into Tech apprenticeship program with SLO Partners, an education management provider also in San Luis Obispo. The Ticket into Tech program offers software developer, software test technician and IT technician apprenticeship tracks, and aims to add about 30 tech workers to the local workforce per graduating class.

Ticket into Tech has "put through about 100 students so far," five of which Clever Ducks has hired, Kardel said.

IT apprenticeship programs in the U.K.

While IT apprenticeship programs may be a new concept to U.S. channel firms, the model has gained traction in the U.K.

Companies such as Manchester-based hosting provider UKFast offer IT apprenticeship programs that meld education with hands-on work experience. According to UKFast, its program aims to train in both core technical skills and soft skills. In a press release, UKFast CEO Lawrence Jones said current and former apprentices represent 18% of the provider's 325 employees.

The U.K. government has also played an active role in pushing for apprenticeships. In a 2017 bid to boost apprenticeship funding, the government introduced an apprenticeship tax on organizations with an annual payroll bill of more than £3 million. That year, the government also piloted a cybersecurity apprenticeship program for protecting national critical infrastructure.


Clever Ducks co-founder Amy Kardel discusses the
Ticket into Tech apprenticeship program.

Recent examples of IT apprenticeship developments include the following:

  • In March 2018, British telecoms company BT said it would create 1,300 technology positions, including cybersecurity roles, for apprentices and graduates. The company develops its apprenticeship and graduate programs in alliances with universities and colleges.
  • In November 2018, MSP software vendor SolarWinds MSP teamed up with Edinburgh Napier University to launch an apprenticeship program. The program gives apprentices an opportunity to earn an honors degree with hands-on experience in software development, while receiving a salary, SolarWinds MSP said. The vendor said the program launched with two apprentices drawn from a pool of 80 applicants.
  • QA, a technology education provider in the U.K., recently said it enrolled its 1,000th degree apprenticeship -- a paid full-time job with training toward an accredited undergraduate or postgraduate degree, the company said.

Colleges, cybersecurity workforce needs out of sync

Discussions about the cybersecurity skills gap often turn to the higher education system.

Fishtech's Foster compared today's talent shortage to "the run-up to 2000 with the dot-com bubble." It was "sort of the same situation," he said, "where colleges could not keep up" with workforce demands for programmers. "The IT degrees [colleges] were turning out didn't have the right technologies or skills."

While schools such as Carnegie Mellon and Stanford offer exceptional cybersecurity programs, programs more broadly are missing the mark, he said.

"In general, IT and especially cybersecurity tend to move so fast, and you can't set a curriculum on specific technologies and have that be good for four, five, let alone 10 years -- the way a lot of colleges work," he noted. "We are finding a lot of times what [graduates] are learning in those cybersecurity programs may or may not be relevant to the current, real world cybersecurity."

Tapping into state and local resources

Channel firms interested in IT apprenticeship programs may investigate support at the state and local level. Storage Strategies Inc. (SSI), an IT services firm and federal defense contractor based in Manassas Park, Va., is currently awaiting approval for its Cybersecurity Analyst Apprenticeship Program from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Steven Mackie, president and CEO of SSISteven Mackie

Once approved, SSI will be the fourth company in northern Virginia to establish a cybersecurity apprenticeship program and the first in Prince William County, said Steven Mackie, president and CEO of SSI.

Mackie said he learned about the program through the Manassas Park High School, with which SSI offers a work-study program for students. Administered by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, the program offers sponsorship to employers that mentor and train IT or cybersecurity apprentices. Participating companies can receive up to $1,000 for each apprentice.

SSI's program is competency-based and focused on earning Certified Ethical Hacker accreditation, Mackie said. Apprentices will have access to mentors among SSI's staff. "We have a number of folks that are totally stoked about helping people get a leg up in this field," he said.

SSI has been piloting the Cybersecurity Analyst Apprenticeship Program with one apprentice, but Mackie said he can envision "having three or four working at any given time."

He noted that the Commonwealth of Virginia has made the process for developing the program "surprisingly easy."

A fragmented cybersecurity landscape

Another factor exacerbating the cybersecurity skills gap is what Foster described as a "ridiculously fragmented" market.

He said industry watchers estimate about 2,000 vendors active in the cybersecurity market today. "If you were an information security jack-of-all-trades 20 years ago, you probably knew 50%, maybe 80%, of the security products available on the market. …Trying to a find a person [today] who has the five, 10, 20 security technologies that an individual company might have selected" is a challenge, Foster said.

As a result, organizations often are forced to develop job candidate's skills with particular security technologies in-house, he said.

Outreach to aspiring talent

Fishtech Group, a cybersecurity specialist headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., is "taking a strong look" at developing a formal apprenticeship program, according to Eric Foster, the company's CISO.

Eric Foster, CISO of FishtechEric Foster

Fishtech has grown to 150 employees since its 2016 founding by security veteran Gary Fish, he said. Although Fishtech's pedigree and market presence help to attract job candidates, he said the company recognizes a need to develop "next-generation talent."

To do this, Fishtech has partnered with local high schools, tech academies and trade schools. One of those partnerships is with Summit Technology Academy (STA), which provides technology training to high school students. Fishtech developed an internship program with STA, with successful interns having an opportunity to work for Fishtech right out of high school, Foster said.

He noted that the Fishtech's internship program with STA already resembles the apprenticeship model in some respects.

STA has proved "a great pipeline for us -- not just the specific partnership but just looking for interesting, passionate people who have been either self-educated or teaching themselves through some of these trade-level programs," he said.

This was last published in January 2019

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