By the time she was 21, Sara Mothersil had attended college for three years — and changed her major three times. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, but did realize one thing: college wasn’t her path to a career.

“I did not like college; it was just the thing to do,” the West Palm Beach, FL native said in a recent interview. “Your parents encourage you to go to college and get an education, but my heart just wasn’t into it. I couldn’t find anything I was passionate about.”

sara mothersil 2 Sara Mothersil

Sara Mothersil, an apprentice with Multiverse and a fulltime analyst with Intermountain Healthcare.

Not long after graduating with an arts degree, Mothersil saw an ad on TikTok for a technology apprenticeship program. She figured it was scam, but when she saw the ad again on Instagram, she reached out to UK-based Multiverse.

Multiverse, as it turned out, was for real; it was offering 12- to 15-month apprenticeships in tech careers — and full-time employment in a number of industries. Mothersil is now five months into her apprenticeship and works as a business management analyst associate for Intermountain Healthcare, one of the largest healthcare providers in the western US.

“I love learning first and foremost,” she said. “Being able to learn from Multiverse and being able to apply what I’ve learned almost instantaneously at Intermountain has been game changing.”

Increasingly, US workers are turning to alternative credentials as a way to demonstrate and enhance their skills. Those alternatives include tech certifications, badges, and apprenticeships, which are supplanting traditional education and work experience.

The number of apprentices has been rising since 2011, and hit a high of 636,515 in 2020.  Since 2014, the number of apprentices completing their training each year has grown 118%, from 44,417 eight years ago to 96,915 in 2021, according to the US Department of Labor.

Since 2012, the number of workers participating in certified apprenticeships has grown by 64%, with more than 14,000 new apprenticeship programs added since 2017. During that same five years, 484,000 workers  have trained through apprenticeship programs, according to Labor Department statistics.

apprenticeship growth 64 US Department of Labor

“Without question, we’re seeing this as a significant trend,” said Graham Waller, a vice president analyst at Gartner Research. “Not only are we seeing it as a major trend, but I’m personally passionate about it. There are so many great advantages of that [apprenticeship program] approach over the traditional computer science degree.”

One of the challenges with traditional classroom-based learning, for example, is that only a small portion of the information taught is used on the job, Graham noted.

A 2020 study by Gartner indicated that employees apply only 37% of the new skills they learn through traditional training. The same study showed skills also have a limited shelf life; 33% of the skills needed three years ago are no longer relevant today.

“The traditional degree is made up by a boatload of information you hardly ever use, and because you’re learning for three years without using those skills, you’re falling further behind as state-of-art technology is moving ahead all time,” Graham said.

When education is matched to a job where the lessons can be readily applied, both talent goals and business outcomes rise sharply, Graham said — nearly 10-fold.

Potential over credentials — the role of upskilling

Alternative credentials can highlight untapped talent and even bolster diversity when employers embrace different ways of obtaining skills, whether through in-house education or other non-traditional programs, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) funded by Walmart.

In the survey of more than 2,800 upper and mid-level managers, 81% of executives, 71% of supervisors, and 59% of HR professionals agreed alternative ways of credentialing yields a more diverse workforce.

apprenticeship growth from 2012 US Department of Labor

Corporate approaches to filling tech skills gaps is increasingly to upskill or reskill current employees, some of whom have tech skills but not the ones now needed. Adding to current knowledge or completely retraining employees is known as “skills adjacency;” in practical terms, it means someone working in marketing or customer service, for instance, can be trained in specific technologies the business needs most.

For example, a business unit might need more data scientists; someone who knows how to use  spreadsheets can be taught how to crunch data to provide business intelligence. Such skills adjacency can  play a role in making apprenticeships the most effective method of training, Graham said.

“They have an adjacent set of skills that leads to opportunities for a career in tech; this is where we’re seeing apprenticeship programs springing up more and more,” Graham said.

Apprenticeship programs also help diversify the talent pipeline specifically in the tech industry, according to a report from the Kapor Center and the NAACP. Black students represent just 6% of those enrolled in advanced placement computer science courses despite representing 15% of the overall student population, according to the report. By contrast, 17% of apprentices from 2016 to 2021 were Black, according to US registered apprenticeship data.

In addition, the proportion of Black students receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science from  between 2016 and 2020 from 9% to 8%.

“Apprenticeships provide a path for workers in underserved communities to overcome obstacles in accessing affordable learning,” said Pierre Dubuc, founder and president of OpenClassrooms, a global education-to-employment online platform with 355,000 students in 140 countries. “Concretely, this means that apprentices are hired and paid wages by an employer, while their tuition fees are also covered by the same employer.”

Particularly for tech jobs, companies in recent years have had to re-think how they find workers, according to Dubuc, whose Paris-based firm has been expanding into the US from Europe and Africa.

“Apprenticeships, which have long been popular in Europe, are now increasingly being recognized here with public sector and private company support as a quick way to train workers for these jobs by tapping into more diverse talent pools,” Dubuc said. “Apprenticeships are becoming more popular because companies have realized it’s a great way to train workers for the jobs they need to fill.”

gartner upskilling graphic Gartner

Beyond that, tech apprenticeships and the jobs that follow pay well and don’t carry the debt burden of a four-year degree, Dubuc noted.

For example, OpenClassrooms and multinational pharmaceutical company Merck partnered on tech-focused apprenticeship programs where participants earn from $24 to $32 an hour, rising to $40 to $50 an hour after three months, according to Dubuc. In contrast, the average salary for an apprentice in the US. is $19.26 an hour, according to Indeed.

“When apprentices complete the…program, which includes our robust online training and mentorship platform, they receive an industry-recognized certificate from the US Department of Labor — and likely a job offer,” Dubuc said.

OpenClassrooms was recently recognized as a Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) with the US Department of Labor.

US government backing of apprenticeships

In February, the Biden administration launched an initiative to expand RAP with the Apprenticeship Building America grant program. The grant provides $113 million to modernize US-based apprenticeship programs. RAPs are industry-vetted, approved, and validated by the Department of Labor or a State Apprenticeship Agency

The Labor Department’s ApprenticeshipUSA’s website helps job seekers find prospective apprenticeship programs, each of which offers paid, full-time employment while acquiring skills and credentials employer’s want.

Ninety-three perent of apprentices who complete a program retain employment at the company and, on average, earn $77,000 a year, according to an ApprenticeshipUSA document.

Earlier this month, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed a proclamation in observance of the eighth National Apprenticeship Week, recognizing the importance of mentorship programs and hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government has put toward registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship programs in various industries. For example, the US government created a 120-day Cybersecurity Apprenticeship initiative that has already connected 140 employers to potential workers attending cybersecurity training programs.

Earlier this year, Expedia Group launched a return-to-work project called the Return Ticket Returnship Program, which can be attended by any worker with a caregiving gap on their resume greater than two years. The prospects don’t have to be former Expedia Group employees — anyone with at least five years of tech career experience who left the workforce to care for someone can apply.

Expedia Group, which owns travel booking platforms Expedia.com, Hotels.com and Vrbo, integrates prospects into teams and matches them with a dedicated manager — essentially a mentor. The program is meant to sharpen worker skills, help them update resumes with new experiences, make networking connections, and have them begin contributing to an Expedia team with the aim of converting to a full-time position.

Digitization, the Great Resignation and the resulting loss of talent

The tech industry was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation, leaving organizations facing a dearth of qualified job candidates for more than 1 million openings.

For all US jobs, the number of openings was at a high of 11.5 million at the end of March, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Meanwhile, in each of the past six months, more than four million people have quit their jobs, according to the agency.

In tech, the talent shortage is even worse. While the national unemployment rate hovers around 3.6%, for the tech industry it’s 2.2%, according to CompTIA, a nonprofit association for the IT industry and workforce. That’s prompted employers throughout the US to step up their search for workers — and to revisit the qualifications (such as a four-year college degree) they require.

With an extremely low unemployment rate, the industry is rethinking what job applicants need to get hired. Skills-based hiring is on the rise, and 59% of employers have already or are considering eliminating college degree requirements — changes that could reshape the IT workforce.

How apprecticeship worked for Mothersil

For Mothersil, college amounted to a lot of information being “thrown at her” by professors, but she was never sure whether she would ever actually use what she learned. By comparison, the apprenticeship program through Multiverse was a whirlwind where one week she was being interviewed as a potential candidate, and the next she was partnered with a company and beginning her 12-month training program.

While the program can be completed remotely, Mothersil decided she wanted a change of scenery and earlier this month moved to Utah, where Intermountain Healthcare is headquartered and where she could intermittently enjoy an office setting.

In comparison to learning from a professor face-to-face, it was the remote learning and work at Intermountain that Mothersil said was among the most challenging aspects of the program. “That’s why I push myself to go to the office,” she said.

She also made a concerted effort to keep up with other Intermountain apprentices via Zoom, something the company encourages.

“In the same way college affords students a professional network, we want to make sure it’s not an either-or for our apprentices; we want to set them up to be a future leader in their career,” said Sophie Ruddock, general manager of Multiverse’s North American operations. “We invest heavily in community, offering access to speakers who range from MBAs to former government leaders.”

Multiverse candidates, or “cohorts” as they’re called by the company, are allowed to pick from technology or management disciplines, such as project management, digital marketing, software engineering and data analytics. Candidates are tested for their proclivity, and from that assigned to a company based on its skills needs.

Multiverse works through apprenticeships with small companies all the way up to global enterprises,such as Visa, Cisco, Verizon and Box.

One aspect of her apprenticeship Mothersil likes in particular is the ability to tell her workplace manager what she learned during any particular day of training and how she can apply that to her job.

The training through Multiverse’s remote program wasn’t easy, she said. Learning SQL Server, Tableau, business intelligence, and data virtualization at an accelerated pace was challenging to say the least. But she was able to work closely with her mentor.

“I have a close relationship with my coach,” Mothersil said. “I’m able to say if I’m struggling here. Even though it’s challenging and intimidating, especially when comes to coding…, I’m confident in the tools I’ve been given.”

Mothersil has long had a passion for organizing her life through Excel spreadsheets — grocery lists, budgets, college achievements, countdowns to events, and the like — but it never occurred to her she was working with “technology,” or more importantly that someone would pay her to do it.

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