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4 questions to help you determine whether technical education makes sense

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A wave of internship programs in the tech industry has caused media buzz. One of the organizations receiving attention is the education startup Multiverse, which: $220 million raised for its internship program, and Accenture, which launched its internship program in many cities across the US Some media outlets have set up these apprenticeship programs as a counterbalance to the wave of layoffs that have also hit the tech sector. Some commentators proclaim apprenticeships as the… solution for unemployment during a recession, while others see them as the solution to the problems of the tech industry diversity problem.

The reality is that apprenticeships in the US defy all sweeping statements of this sort, and to understand why, we need to look at what differentiates apprenticeships here from apprenticeships in the region where they first emerged, Europe. During the Middle Ages, apprenticeships were arrangements where young workers would learn a craft, such as bricklaying or blacksmithing, under the tutelage of a master craftsman. In return for their labour, these students would receive food, shelter and the transfer of skills. There was clarity in what both the master craftsman and the apprentice would get out of this exchange.

Modern apprenticeships in Europe are more complex than during the medieval era, but they are nevertheless highly regulated and subject to extensive government oversight. In general, there is clarity and structure in purpose, objective and implementation. For example, in my book Working to learn: bridging the gap between youth learning and career paths, I describe the Swiss model in which internship programs are collectively seen as an investment in both their financial health and the workforce as a whole. Available jobs are seen as the “demand” side of the apprenticeship scheme and potential participants are seen as the “supply” side, with the Swiss government acting as an intermediary between these two markets.

In contrast, apprenticeships in the US are highly decentralized, unregulated and fragmented in their purpose, objectives and implementation. They are often established to solve specific challenges faced by organizations, which may or may not be related to the economy as a whole or to diversity issues. For these reasons, it is much more difficult to make big statements about what the current increase in apprenticeships means. Internships in the US must therefore necessarily be assessed on a case-by-case basis to predict their implications for the future of the workforce and/or for DEI.

In general, there are a few questions to ask and answer about each individual internship program:

What is the purpose of the apprenticeship system, and why?

As mentioned, organizations in the US start apprenticeship programs for a variety of reasons. Some programs were consistently shaped by technical organizations unable to show improvements in hiring and retaining underrepresented groups. Here, apprenticeships are seen as solutions for improving DEI outcomes. Another reason for internship programs is to function as a way to incorporate non-traditional workers, such as older workers, into the workforce, something we’ve seen in the financial sectorfor example.

Other internship programs are intended as a strategy for fulfilling non-technical roles and tasks in a technology company that, for example, engineers do that they don’t have to do and that take their time. Such jobs would technically be in the tech industry, but because they are for non-tech positions, they would have very different implications than apprenticeship programs that actually fill technical roles. A company-wide DEI target can be affected, but a STEM-specific DEI target cannot.

It’s especially important to ask what a specific internship program is for and why, because organizations themselves may not even be clear on the answers. But without this clarity and intent, there is no way to measure whether a program is succeeding in its objectives and there is a risk that it will become little more than a PR campaign or a glorified internship.

How is the program financially subsidized?

There has been an increased government interest in subsidizing apprenticeship programs as a way to strengthen the economy. But if an internship program receives federal grants, there must be accountability and transparency, especially regarding the purported goals and ways of measuring whether the program’s results meet those goals or not.

What is the conversion rate for the program?

The purpose of apprenticeships is to lead to full-time recruitment in a significant number, if not within the company where the apprenticeship was completed, then within the same industry. Again, if this doesn’t happen, then the internship program is actually a glorified internship or broadcast program.

Due to the highly fragmented and isolated nature of apprenticeship programs in the US, the answers to these questions vary greatly depending on the organization. For this reason, it is not constructive to predict what apprenticeships mean for the future of the tech workforce, in particular, or for the economy in general. Despite the temptation to reduce something complex to a simplified sound bite, the reality is that each learner program means something different depending on the answers to the above questions. And unless organizations are okay with random results, they will have to bring a high level of clarity and intention into their respective programs.

Lisette Nieves is the president of the New York City Fund and is a distinguished clinical professor at New York University.

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