Despite the layoffs in big tech, most organizations are worried about finding technical talent — and they should be. The U.S. unemployment rate is at 3.6% and the number of unemployed persons is at 5.9 million. In tech, talent is even scarcer. CompTIA reports that the unemployment rate in U.S. tech occupations fell from 2.1% in September 2022 to 1.5% in January 2023, indicating that laid off employees were quickly rehired. From December to January, tech job openings actually increased by 22,408 to 268,898. Year over year, the U.S. has added over 430,000 tech jobs, nearing a total of 6.5 million.

Employers are growing frustrated with the competition for tech workers who command high salaries, churn quickly and cost a ton to hire, integrate and replace. Thus, many are developing a new pipeline for talent: technology apprenticeships.

A tech apprenticeship is a full-time job in which the apprentice becomes qualified to fill a role by immersing themselves in it. Drawing from a decade of experience creating and running tech apprenticeships, this article will offer three best practices for program design and note two pitfalls to avoid.

1. Identify current and future job vacancies.

Start by identifying and investigating key positions that are chronically unfilled. Is the role seeing high attrition? Is the company being outbid by competitors? Is it difficult to find candidates who even “qualify” for the role? Data from your tech stack might provide some preliminary answers.

Following the clues in your data, consult managers to better understand the vacancies and their impact on the business. In addition, ask managers to name emerging roles that will become important as your organization pursues its long-term strategy. If you’ll need more data analysts and cybersecurity specialists in two years, now is the time to recruit apprentices into those disciplines.

Last, meet with people who currently hold roles you struggle to fill. If you discover, for instance, that a toxic culture in their department is driving talent away, you’ll want to address the issue before onboarding apprentices. Don’t add passengers to a leaking ship.

2. Define the requisite skills and functions.

Traditionally, hiring managers look at so-called qualifications — a four-year college degree or industry experience, for example. For an apprenticeship program, scrap the criteria and hire for potential. In reality, no one checks every box in the job description. Every hire needs time and additional training to become effective. The ideal apprentice is a hard worker and fast learner with transferable skills and a diverse perspective.

To identify strong apprenticeship candidates, start by defining the skills and functions they will perform. For example, an office manager might do scheduling, event planning, procurement, general accounting and receptionist work. These skills are not unique to tech. Someone who works in catering, for instance, has likely performed those functions in a high-stress environment with demanding clients.

For every job in tech, there are transferable skills from the non-tech world. A mother that took off five years to raise three children might excel in project management. A chef who learned to design experiences for all five senses might thrive in front-end development. A teacher with excellent listening skills and patience might do great in customer success. Those, by the way, are real-life examples.

3. Establish a community of mentors.

Apprentices learn skills by doing the job, whether it’s project management, front-end development or customer success. But apprentices cannot learn in isolation. It takes a community of mentors to model and coach technical skills, soft skills and organizational culture.

At first, senior employees might hesitate to become mentors because it sounds like extra work. Offer stipends for mentors along with recognition or titles that can advance their careers. Be clear that mentorship doesn’t mean being a classroom teacher. Rather, the task is to model great work, answer questions and provide critical feedback.

Mentors should come from all levels and functions within a company. A customer success leader might mentor engineering apprentices on listening and presentation skills. Similarly, a product management mentor might show engineering apprentices how their work relates to customer needs. Different from trade apprenticeships where one expert mentors one trainee, tech apprenticeships work best when they’re supported by a community of mentors.

Two Pitfalls to Avoid

Apprenticeships can be a foreign concept to some tech organizations. The biggest and most common mistake is to equate apprenticeships with internships, which can vary considerably.

The word “apprenticeship” is often used loosely, but registered apprenticeships must meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Labor. These include completing 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training, which is one year of full-time work.

Great apprenticeships immerse apprentices in a team and its work responsibilities. While apprentices may start with basic tasks — which is reflected in their wages — the point is to learn the job. Treat your apprentices like workers, and they will rise to the occasion.

That raises the second pitfall: not challenging apprentices enough. Employers sometimes treat interns as a separate and less capable class of worker. Apprentices, however, need to be exposed to the same tasks and responsibilities as long-term employees. If apprentices do the same basic tasks for too long, they won’t become proficient in the role even after completing their 2,000 hours. They need practice in defined competencies. They need to do work that continuously stretches their abilities and comfort zone. They also need direct, actionable feedback.

A Culture of Learning

An apprenticeship program isn’t merely a strategy for filling open jobs — although it does accomplish that. Instead an apprenticeship program can be a great way to create a culture of learning that invests in upskilling and reskilling workers.

A culture of learning recognizes the untapped potential in everyone. It acknowledges that all of us have been apprentices at some point — and will be again. The skills we have today may not be as relevant in 10 years, and the jobs we hold today might not even exist.

A well-designed apprenticeship program can give your organization an edge. While your competitors battle for talent, you will build it. While they struggle to catch up with industry innovations, you will lead the way.