Tech apprenticeships are helping fill the UK workforce. Next stop: America?

Apprenticeships could offer some young U.S. adults a different route into tech, and a British company called Multiverse hopes to help.

Multiverse apprentices

Multiverse apprentices may come from less traditional or non-tech backgrounds.

Photo: Multiverse

Verity Marsterson already had a bachelor's degree in the humanities. But when she decided to make a career in tech, she decided to learn on the job. Now, thanks to an engineering apprenticeship organized through Multiverse, she's an Android developer for the British media company Sky.

Whether young adults are looking to upskill or didn't even attend post-secondary school at all, companies such as Multiverse increasingly provide a route into competitive tech job roles. The company is an education platform aimed at helping mostly non-graduates find apprenticeships and offering them career guidance. And in 2020, the company tripled the number of apprentices it trained to 3,500 from a little over a thousand the year prior.

Marsterson, 25, graduated from Cardiff University in 2018 with joint honors in French and Politics. Prior to her apprenticeship in August 2019, Marsterson had no training in software engineering — and all that she did know was self-taught from when she set up her own cybersecurity forum and built her own website using HTML. But she believed that in order to have a successful tech career, she would need some formal training.

While colleges prepare students for the workforce after graduation, it can take months before students get a job and actually begin to apply the skills they have learned. Apprentices, however, are constantly learning new skills on a full-time job, without accruing large amounts of student loan debt.

"Having that switch from French and Politics into technical — a software engineering apprenticeship allowed me to get that training, while being on the job with professionals, getting paid and being fully supported academically," said Marsterson.

Multiverse has its sights set beyond the U.K, though. Co-founder Euan Blair, son of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, told Protocol about receiving regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Labor for further educating and training apprentices for tech and Fortune 500 companies.

Despite recent growth in apprenticeships numbers in both the U.S. and U.K., total apprenticeship starts declined modestly in both countries amid COVID-19. While neither country breaks out statistics specifically for technological roles, making it hard to directly compare their efforts, the U.K. saw 8,540 apprentices start in fields related to information and communication in the 2020 fiscal year, while the U.S. added just 4,951 across information and all utilities during its fiscal year, despite its population being five times the size.

According to Blair, Multiverse has not spent "a penny on marketing in the U.S.'' yet, but has already begun ground work in New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, Dallas, Austin, Atlanta and Chicago. "In the U.S., we're working more closely with community organizations and charitable partners to reach talent from a broader range of backgrounds," Blair said. "And we're also getting to high schools so that we reach students that employers typically would not get to meet."

As Multiverse rolls out in the U.S., applicants will be asked to create a profile on the Multiverse site, then be vetted for core competencies. Those who are selected for the program will be matched with companies, have one-on-one coaching for interviews, complete skills training for about a 15- to 18-month period at the company they are placed at and then are awarded with certificates for their respective profession. Many can expect to gain full-time employment at their placement company; Blair told Protocol that, "about 87% of Multiverse apprentices actually stay with their employer once the apprenticeship is completed."

The apprenticeship model at Multiverse offers instruction that one would typically learn in a classroom setting with on-the-job training. But the draw for most employers is having the opportunity to recruit workers who meet their specific standards.

"When I speak with employers both in the U.K. and the U.S., and two things that come up on a regular basis is better representing their customers in society by hiring people from diverse backgrounds and digital transformation, which is having people on-board with digital, tech and data analytical skills to take advantage of those changes," Blair said.

Traditionally, apprenticeships in the U.S. have often focused on training for more "blue collar jobs" — such as electricians, plumbers, mechanics, carpenters and so on. Now, more programs have been created for more "white collar" or "new collar" jobs like cybersecurity, digital technology, informational technology and financial services, and many international firms increasingly see value in filing their ranks using such talent.

"Attracting junior talent is the strategic lifeblood of banks like Morgan Stanley. Traditionally, that has meant recruiting actively from universities," said Steph Ahrens, Morgan Stanley's Head of Talent Acquisition for Europe, Middle East & Africa, based in London. "But, as greater numbers of U.K. school-leavers opt not to pursue university, we have actively diversified our junior recruitment intake by offering up to 18 months-long apprenticeships at the bank. We feel strongly that it is important to offer career opportunities to all students, regardless of the academic path they choose."

"Our investment in apprenticeship programs is paying off. It serves as an important driver of enhancing the diversity of our workforce, a key priority at Morgan Stanley. Not only are we equipping young talent with a strong career foundation, we are building out skill sets, such as data science, which can be key in progressing careers," Ahrens added.

In 2014, the U.S. began to double the number of U.S. apprentices to 750,000 from 375,000 by 2019, according to DOL administrators. By the end of 2020, the U.S. had 636,000 apprentices nationwide. Then in mid-March, the labor department announced that $87.5 million in grants would be allocated to the 26,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the nation for expansion. About $40 million of those funds in grants would also be awarded to states that implement, "required diversity, equity and inclusion efforts."

Support from the government had been slow in previous years out of hesitancy that young adults would choose apprenticeships over going to college and getting degrees, but now federal support is shifting to fill jobs with digital skills at a quicker pace. Multiverse found that 60% of young Americans would now consider an apprenticeship instead of college.

"Most Americans still assume that you have to pursue a college degree to do the job that you want and the country is saturated for people to go off and do just that. The difference between America and the U.K. is that perception, but overall the markets are quite similar with tech- and professional services-led economies," Blair explained.

Multiverse works with companies like Facebook, Morgan Stanley, KPMG and Microsoft for recruiting and training software engineering, business administration and analyst apprenticeship roles. It raised $44 million in funding in January from investors including General Catalyst, GV and Microsoft Chairman John W. Thompson.

IBM has also testified that funding for apprenticeships is shockingly low in the U.S. for a pathway that can be an economic game changer for both students and mid-career professionals. The global tech giant says funding for DOL apprenticeships should be increased, and believes community colleges can play a central role in these programs nationwide.

For many apprentices like Marsterson, the idea of more people learning longer on the job through employer-funded compensation certainly seems like a good idea.

"When you come out of university and enter your first working role, you're kind of by yourself. But an apprenticeship provider offers the support and security through your coaches, so that you do your day-to-day work, while still being on the job — and it is a huge difference because most employers don't have the time to comfort new hires in the same way," Marsterson added.

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