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Narrowing the Tech Talent Gap: Apprentice Networks and Contract Negotiations

Almost one year ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched its “America Works” campaign to address the worker shortage. The national Chamber suggested a suite of federal and/or state legislative proposals that included training more Americans for in-demand jobs, removing barriers to work (e.g., childcare), doubling the cap on employment-based immigration, and doubling the quota of H-1B and H-2B visas. Many solutions that involve legislative or regulatory changes require the “stars to align,” and that is not likely any time soon. In the meantime, can businesses effectively make changes on their own or in partnership with other businesses, localities, or local networks to ease the shortage?

Localities Are Addressing Workforce Gaps

Workforce development efforts are in full swing at the local level across the country — in Northern Virginia (NOVA) and Fairfax County in particular. NOVA is home to many of our TechServe members but, most importantly, NOVA is also home to many companies ranging from Google to Amazon to CapitalOne and the federal contracting industry. NOVA has job openings across diverse sectors, including IT positions. Recent data show that Fairfax County employers have more than 60,000 job openings, with an “official” unemployment rate of 2.9%.

In late March, Fairfax County Economic Advisory Commission (EAC), a group of community leaders appointed by the County Board of Supervisors or serving in a representative capacity on behalf of various stakeholders, launched a workgroup to focus on work-based learning (WBL) and the talent shortage. On April 19, 2022, the full EAC met and discussed a draft report for recommendations to the Board of Supervisors for possible policy action. The proposals included:

  1. Delivering technical assistance to businesses to develop and customize WBL solutions;
  2. Funding WBL solution strategies;
  3. Including WBL in other county initiatives; and
  4. Building awareness for WBL solution strategies and programs.

Working Toward a Solution Through Collaboration

While the Board considers new policies resulting from these meetings, including a pilot work-based learning opportunity fund, the EAC’s working group produced immediate results simply through information sharing among stakeholders. Major high-tech employers have figured out how to address several obstacles in hiring skilled workers to fill IT/engineering positions, including government contracts that require security clearances and four-year degrees. Information sharing among employers, even those competing for the same employees, will be necessary to address the talent gap.

The Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which has two representatives on the EAC, is working to close talent gaps by organizing local efforts and regional partnerships. Jennifer Williamson, NOVA Chamber vice president for Workforce and Member Engagement, explains, “Organizations must at least talk to each other to be aware of efforts to close the talent gaps. Competition may be involved, but the challenges are so acute that no one organization can fix the problem alone.”

Here are some takeaways from the April 19 public meeting and follow-up conversations with participants:

  • Companies Negotiate Government Contracts that Modify 4-Year Degree Requirements. Most government contract RFPs require the contractor to staff the project with workers that have 4-year degrees. However, since there are no corresponding regulatory requirements, NOVA government contractors have negotiated to include apprentices in the project. After winning the bid, they ask for a contract modification to include workers with four-year degrees “or the equivalent.” With the full knowledge of the contracting officer, companies fill these positions with employees participating in work-based apprentice programs—including IT workers with associate degrees or former military, who may already have security clearances and can easily transition to their new role.“There is a prevailing belief that government contractors can’t use apprentices—it’s a myth!” Williamson said.
  • IT Employers Co-Found Regional Apprentice Networks. Northern Virginia IT employers Accenture and AON joined the NOVA Chamber to establish the Greater Washington Apprentice Network. In 2016, Accenture established its internal apprenticeship program and worked with AON, Mcdonald’s, Walgreens, and other companies to found the inaugural apprentice network, based in Chicago. Apprentice networks now exist throughout the country, including Greater Washington, DC, Houston, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Northern California. Accenture created “Bridging the Gap Between Talent and Opportunity,” a “national playbook” for professional jobs to help other companies develop apprenticeship programs.Company apprentice programs provide work-based learning and place apprentices in already-awarded contracts. As part of these “earn and learn” programs, workers pursue an associate or higher degree as part of training for a particular job. As training proceeds, workers graduate into more specialized jobs. Accenture apprentices, including community college graduates and former pipefitters, are now succeeding in positions such as corporate IT group member and business integration senior analyst.
  • Universities Offer “Clearance-Ready” Programs. Another challenge to filling IT/engineering positions is finding talented workers with or capable of quickly obtaining a security clearance. George Mason University has partnered with companies in offering a one-year non-credit program that helps ease clearance hurdles. After the one-year program, graduates should be able to fulfill the requirements to obtain clearances. In some cases, employer partners have enrolled all employees needing clearances in the program.

The worker shortage is so acute that employers and governments will need many different programs and pathways to fill the gap. These ideas and approaches provide a good start.

This article was written by Julie Strandlie, TechServe’s Government Affairs Representative, who serves as the Fairfax County Planning Commission representative to the Economic Advisory Commission (EAC). She also brings her expansive knowledge to the position due to her legal and advocacy experience with the technical talent gap and higher education. 

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