Colorado Springs has no registered cybersecurity apprenticeships — but they could be what the city needs to fill serious gaps in the industry workforce.

At Cybersecurity Industry Day April 10 at Catalyst Campus, government, tech and education leaders urged local firms to build and register cybersecurity apprenticeships.

A common theme among speakers: Colleges alone can’t keep up with the demand for new cybersecurity employees, and many people with the aptitude and desire for the work can’t afford a cybersecurity education.

“It’s a shift in how we’ve been hiring for generations in this industry,” Heather Terenzio, CEO and co-founder of Techtonic Group and Techtonic Academy, said after the event. Techtonic Academy, headquartered in Boulder, was recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor as the first registered technology apprenticeship program in Colorado almost a year ago.

“Instead of hiring when you’re absolutely desperate for talent, you have to be thinking ahead of time, training up your talent and getting them ready… And you have to change the company culture into helping bring other people up — because the only way to hire right now is to poach from other companies, and there’s only a finite amount of cybersecurity professionals in Colorado Springs…

“But if you’re creating your own talent pipeline, you can solve those issues for yourself.”

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Registered cybersecurity apprenticeships save employers money and allow workers to start careers skilled and debt-free, said Dudley Light, regional director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship.

“The advantage to the company is that there’s about $1.50 return for every dollar that you spend; for the nation, it’s $27 for every dollar spent,” he said.

From day one, companies pay a reduced wage, which increases as apprentices become more valuable through training, instruction and on-the-job learning.

The distinction between an apprenticeship and a registered apprenticeship is important, Light said. A registered apprenticeship meets national standards for registration with the U.S. Department of Labor, mapping out an earn-and-learn program with specific requirements for job-related technical instruction. The industry-recognized certifications earned are “stackable and transferable,” he said.

“When you’re filling out a resumé later on, if you have a registered apprenticeship program certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor, it carries as much weight as most college degrees because it’s a validation of the training,” Light said.

“[There are] a lot of apprenticeship programs by name only, where [companies] hire people and kind of train them — but there’s no documentation behind it, there’s no qualification behind it, there’s no standard that you’re going by.

“With the Department of Labor you can register your program and establish those standards — that’s all industry-driven.

“We do not tell employers what you have to train on; the employers tell us… We customize every set of standards to meet the employer’s needs.”

Formal apprenticeship programs have flourished for decades in Europe. More than 60 percent of Germans complete apprenticeships that mix work and school in diverse fields. But in the United States, the image of apprenticeships as union-bound, construction- and trade-based programs has persisted.

That perception no longer works, Light said, pointing to IT apprenticeships at Amazon.com and JPMorgan Chase as examples of “today’s apprenticeships.”

Jennifer Jirous-Rapp, experiential learning and apprenticeship coordinator with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said there is “not a boxed model of what an apprenticeship program is — it’s very diverse, and it works in a way that fits the needs of a particular business or a particular industry. It’s wide open. That’s one message that we really feel strongly about getting out.”

The Obama administration expanded registered apprenticeship programs as a means to create better access to secure jobs, with the U.S. Department of Labor announcing $90 million in funding through the ApprenticeshipUSA initiative in April 2016, to double apprenticeships by 2018.

In October, an additional $50.5 million was awarded to states to engage employers and expand programs. Of that, Colorado received $1.8 million to create nine new apprenticeship programs. Funding is intended to support the launch of apprenticeship models in high-growth industries, including IT, high-tech services and advanced manufacturing.

ApprenticeshipUSA statistics show there are now more than 21,000 registered apprenticeship programs nationwide, with 1,700 established in 2016 alone.

Terenzio said registered apprenticeships would have a major impact on the cybersecurity workforce pipeline because “it opens up the door to a whole new population of workers,” also allowing companies to cut recruitment costs and avoid understaffing.

When Techtonic Group launched its apprenticeship program three years ago, “we were seeing a real need in the industry for new talent coming in… but not everyone could afford to take six months off and afford to pay $20,000 or $30,000 to attend a [cybersecurity] boot camp,” she said.

“We were also hearing a lot about trying to get more women and minorities in technology and to us, there seemed to be a big disconnect.

“I lived in Europe as a kid and I’ve always been a fan of the apprenticeship model that I saw in Europe, so we decided to create that here in the IT world,” she said. “We bring people on who probably couldn’t have afforded a boot camp or a university or sometimes even a community college. We pay them on Day One, and we give them the opportunity to have a career in software development.”

Techtonic’s apprentices have been a varied group. Some never finished high school; some had GEDs or one year of college; some were working at fast food jobs when they came on board.  They have gone on to tech jobs at Accenture, IBM and Lockheed Martin.

Companies hiring only out of colleges miss important talent, Terenzio said.

“Most people coming out of the college system are all spoken for long before they graduate, and colleges can’t generate employees fast enough. So we have to be more creative around workforce development and employees,” she said.

Dudley Light, of the U.S. Department of Labor, describes the apprenticeship system to cybersecurity and educational professionals.
Dudley Light, of the U.S. Department of Labor, describes the apprenticeship system to cybersecurity and educational professionals.

Apprenticeships also shorten the on-ramp for job competence and help address the rapid pace of change that challenges cybersecurity education.

“We’re teaching on real clients and real projects with deadlines and changing requirements and technologies, so when people work with us … they’re living in the real world with software development 40 hours a week,” Terenzio said.

“So, unlike college where you kind of go away for four years, you’re hands-on dealing with real live clients and live projects and problems and helping to solve issues day after day. And as technologies change for our clients, we’re pivoting and changing as well.”

Jirous-Rapp described several paths to creating a registered apprenticeship program. In one model, an individual business can provide its own in-house training; in another, a community college can be the training provider; or a group of companies can collectively create a registered apprenticeship program in which their apprentices receive the education component at an institute.

Industry associations, community colleges and workforce centers can also become “apprenticeship sponsors,” working with businesses and administering the apprenticeship program, she said.

With the $1.8 million grant from the Labor Department, Colorado will “build an infrastructure that supports registered apprenticeships better, because we see the value in the system, the value for employers and the value for the apprentices that work in these programs,” Jirous-Rapp said.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is working closely with Pikes Peak Community College and Pikes Peak Workforce Center to gather feedback, support industries starting registered apprenticeships and streamline the registration process.

Debbie Sagen, vice president of workforce development at PPCC, said the college launched its new Cyber Prep program in October, an employer-led partnership to develop an early cyber pipeline for middle- and high-school students. PPCC has also committed to exploring registered apprenticeships, she said, and intends to start providing the academic component of apprenticeship programs on the non-credit side, backed by industry certification.

“We want what they teach to be thoroughly tested and backed by theory… but we also know we have to be nimble; that there are skills people need to learn right away, because industry demands it,” she said.

PPCC students also fit the bill for cybersecurity apprenticeships, with active  duty military members, veterans and military dependents making up 26 percent of the student body, Sagen said.

“We think we have the right population, the right community, and what we want to know from you as employers is: Are you ready to take that journey with us and start an apprenticeship program?” she said

Pikes Peak Workforce Center offers assistance in developing apprenticeship standards and completing paperwork.

Light said the labor department is also ready to help companies start registered apprenticeships.

“All of our services are at zero cost to the employer and to the apprentice,” he said. “It’s really your tax dollars at work.”