Struggling to find tech workers? You might need to train them yourself

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Tony Byrd was growing increasingly discontented with his job running the coffee shop in the lobby of IBM’s main building in Research Triangle Park. He had been working there since he graduated from South Granville High School nearly a decade ago, and with two young kids to provide for at home, Byrd, 27, was itching for a new start.

Now you can find him buying coffee from the same bar he used to run, except this time as a full-time IBM employee.

Byrd’s transition from barista to IT worker is part of what has become increasingly necessary in today’s technology industry: companies looking to nontraditional places to fill a growing talent gap.

Byrd is a recent graduate of IBM’s apprenticeship program — a 12-month-long training program for workers without advanced degrees, where he learned coding languages like JavaScript, Python and C#. It’s a win-win for Byrd and IBM. He has the chance to start a career in the tech industry and receive a big raise from his barista days. And IBM has gained an employee who says he’s in no hurry to leave Big Blue.

“It meant a lot and took a weight off my shoulders,” Byrd said of being hired full-time. When asked whether it made him feel a sense of loyalty to the company, he said it did.

IBM’s apprenticeship program was pioneered at its RTP office in 2017. Since then, the program has spread to several IBM offices. In two years, it has led to nearly 200 employees being taught how to code, run cybersecurity and a host of other skills. Around 90% of people in the program have become full-time IBM employees, the company said.

Kelli Jordan, director of career and skills at IBM, said the program was born of necessity, with hundreds of thousands of IT job openings around the country going unfilled.

“Every company is becoming a tech company in some sort of way. … It is a bit of a numbers game,” she said. “There’s over 700,000 (unfilled) tech jobs, and when you look at candidates that are coming out of the traditional pipeline, there are only about 70,000 with a computer science degree. Those numbers don’t match up.”

So IBM came to the realization it had to recruit differently.

“That meant looking at community colleges and coding boot camps,” she said, rather than just depending on the universities producing enough computer science graduates.

The apprenticeship model — where potential workers get paid while they learn new skills — has been around for a long time, mainly in the trades. IBM says it’s one of the first tech companies to try the model. In the IBM program, apprentices receive 200 hours of learning on average, both in the classroom and in real-life projects, applying new skills and getting real-time feedback.

Jordan said she has received loads of calls from other companies about how to set up a similar program.

As an added benefit, tech companies could also increase their workforce diversity by hiring from nontraditional sources of talent.

“For us, it definitely has helped with diversity,” IBM’s Jordan said. “We do see candidates who may have not been able to go to a traditional college but have been able to build skills.”


This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more by going