The New Tech Apprentice

 
 
By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2002-06-10
 
 
 

Many people would see a one-year, minimum-wage, entry-level network support apprenticeship as a job from hell. To Shellie Chambers, its a gift from heaven. Chambers, now in rehab, has been plagued by drug addiction for the past 28 years, the last eight of which she spent working in a dry-cleaning business.

Chambers escape from all that is a new IT apprentice program funded by a $550,000 U.S. Department of Labor grant and administered by CompTIA (Computing Technology Industry Association), a trade association that develops vendor-neutral certifications. The idea is to provide entry-level workers a path to break into the IT profession while also giving employers a way to ensure that new workers have needed skills—something that IT certifications alone cant always guarantee.

Chambers new employer, Exodus IT Services, is one of four organizations that are piloting the new DOL apprenticeship program. Exodus, in Hickory, N.C., is providing a network services apprenticeship program to train seven entry-level employees who will then take exams for CompTIA A+ and Network+ certifications in preparation for networking jobs. (For more information about the program and the remaining pilot sites, go to www.comptia.org.)

The pilot projects use a CompTIA-created program that includes classroom instruction, along with standards and methodologies for on-the-job-training and task lists related to each IT apprenticeship. Using what will ultimately be a DOL-approved apprenticeship model as a foundation, CompTIA is crafting something it said it hopes employers by years end will be able to customize as their standard for training entry-level workers.

Experts say such a model could make it easier for entry-level workers to gain a toehold in IT, something that has become more difficult due to the increasing reliance on IT certification. "The IT industry has had a great deal of trouble providing entry-level people with that first six to 12 months of experience," said Patrick von Schlag, director of worldwide content strategy for Global Knowledge Network Inc., an IT training provider in Cary, N.C. "People used to get jobs working for really small companies that were willing to hire and train. But the advent of certifications has hurt that because now even small companies dont want to say they hire uncertified people."

One CIO who believes in the idea is Robert Miller of The American Cos., a $200 million shipping company based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Miller has already deployed the apprentice model, albeit informally. Three years ago, when The American Cos. acquired an AS/400, Miller decided he needed new IT blood to support the system. He hired Dan Coppola, who had been making $35,000 a year running a newspaper route but wanted to get into the IT profession. He quit his newspaper job, went to school at The Chubb Institute and wound up working on a help desk for a yearly salary of $21,000.

Coppola had few IT skills, but he had drive, so Miller hired him for $35,000 a year. Thats less than half of the $75,000 to $80,000 Miller said he would have had to pay a more experienced IT worker with AS/400 skills. In exchange for the bargain-basement salary, Miller was happy to trade training. After picking up experience, Coppola now makes $55,000 a year.

Dorrie Hasty, an IT supervisor in charge of Exodus apprentice program, is hoping that the program will help her save money by enabling her to pay lower wages while she trains her employees and that the apprentices will feel obliged—out of gratitude, at least—to stick around past the year-long program.

Chambers doesnt plan to let her down. She is grateful for even this entry-level IT work. "For the next couple of years, I want to give back," Chambers said. "This is valuable training were getting."

Her gratitude is understandable. Under Hastys tutelage, Exodus seven apprentices have not only learned the basics of networking but have also learned, more basically, how to type, how to use Windows, even how to turn on computers in the first place. In exchange for this opportunity, they are earning minimum wage, and their classes are being funded with DOL money. They will receive pay raises of about 20 percent each quarter. When they pass their certifications, their wages will go up to market rates.

But one question begs itself: Given the depressed states of the economy and the IT job market, should the IT profession encourage entry-level people to join its ranks? Experts say yes. "Im not going to argue that weve got a really healthy entry-level job market," said Global Knowledges von Schlag. "Companies are less likely to hire a bunch of entry-level people. But ... people continue to need entry-level support." The depression of the economy and the IT job market actually make an apprenticeship model more relevant than ever, von Schlag said. "Two years ago, if people were smart and trainable, you hired them," he said. "Now, theres a broader array of people available with experience. If youre new and just entering the IT job market, you need a vehicle like an apprenticeship to do that."

IT Careers Center Managing Editor Lisa Vaas can be reached at lisa_vaas@ziffdavis.com.

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