It is hard to talk about the technology industry without discussing the prevalence of the ever-widening technical skills gap. As unemployment rates in the U.S. and around the globe skyrocket amid the coronavirus pandemic, organizations across industries are struggling to find the talent they need to innovate, adapt and thrive in a constantly changing and increasingly digital marketplace.

It is impossible to talk about the technical skills gap without also acknowledging racial disparity in the tech sector. As of February 2020, there are only four Black Fortune 500 CEOs — with none representing tech companies. Furthermore, in 2015, Black and Hispanic students made up 31% of computer science majors — yet in 2018, the Brookings Institution found that Black employees make up nearly 12% of all workers but only 8% of computer science and math-related occupations. Hispanic employees make up roughly 17% of all workers but only 7% of workers in those fields.

Recognizing the demand for greater equity in the tech space, Nashville-based tech company Asurion responded to the needs of the organization, its people and the greater Nashville region with the launch its in-house software engineering apprenticeship program. By looking to its hourly employees in customer care centers and supply chain distribution centers, the company seeks to leverage the talent and diversity already present in its employee base to close the tech skills gap, shares Yanika Smith-Bartley, chief diversity and talent strategy officer at Asurion.

Let’s examine how Asurion’s apprenticeship program develops critical technical and leadership skills in apprentices while increasing career advancement opportunities for its hourly employees and supporting a more equitable tech space for the future.

Technical Skills

The World Economic Forum predicts “more than half (54%) of all employees will require significant reskilling by 2022.” Asurion’s apprenticeship program seeks to not only foster diversity in the tech industry but help build the region’s tech talent pipeline with an eye toward long-term growth, says Smith-Bartley.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Smith-Bartley shares, Asurion was required to “pivot what was going to be an in-person program to a virtual model.” Coming from varying educational and technical backgrounds, the first cohort of five apprentices will have opportunities to learn and apply new skills on the job, with help from mentors as well as from one another, in the comfort of their homes. The program culminates in a final collaborative project among the cohort.

Through its partnership with Nashville State Community College, Asurion’s apprentices will move through six virtual courses on software engineering, programming and coding over the course of eight8 months during the 10-month apprenticeship program. Apprentices will gain core competencies in coding languages like HTML, CSS, JavaScript and TypeScript, all while maintaining full-time employment, salary and benefits, says Smith-Bartley.

Leadership Skills

Transitioning from a frontline customer service, supply chain or other hourly position to a corporate role is a significant and, at times, disorienting change for customer-facing employees. Asurion’s apprenticeship program provides comprehensive and cross-functional support to apprentices by also emphasizing the leadership and soft skills they will need to succeed in higher-level job functions.

“[Asurion’s] general values and leadership principles are going to be applied differently from a frontline role versus moving into this tech professional role,” says Smith-Bartley. Often, in this new setting, the apprentice’s customers will be their peers or colleagues from other business functions. Mentors work with apprentices to navigate this transition and ensure they are prepared for their new career path.

Career Advancement

In its first iteration of the program, Asurion opened up five apprenticeship positions and received over 200 applications from existing employees, all interested in the prospect of upskilling and developing the skills they need to be competitive in the tech space. When the first cohort completes the program, each apprentice will be offered full-time associate software engineer positions at Asurion.

The apprenticeship will provide immense value to the individual apprentices as well as Asurion and the middle-Tennessee area, says Smith-Bartley. “Research shows that when you create programs like this, you tend to have higher retention of those particular employees. Moreover, as a large employer in Nashville, upskilling our existing employees will help close the tech talent gap within middle Tennessee,” as app developers and software engineers are among the most in-demand job roles in the area.

The Future of the Technology Industry

A 2017 research report conducted by OpenMIC regarding racial diversity in the technology sector states, “Diversity is not simply about filling seats at the table. It’s also about the decisions that get made at the table. A racially diverse tech industry helps ensure that the products and services the industry produces meet the diverse needs of the millions of Americans who depend on them.”

In conversations about a post-pandemic world, you may have heard leaders use phrases like, “The new normal” or, “When things return to normal…,” but the reality is that we have an opportunity to build something better than normal. Organizations must seize this moment in time to look internally and leverage the diversity already present in their teams — or begin the journey toward correcting the lack of diversity in their employee base.

To meet future consumer demands and talent requirements, learning and development professionals must play an integral role in bringing forward and developing diverse talent in their organizations. Looking to Asurion’s apprenticeship program and efforts to cultivate diverse talent in the tech space, learning leaders have a model to create a more equitable future for the tech industry and for all.