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Conversation with CompTIA's Gretchen Koch on IT Careers for Diverse Populations

I talked recently with the Executive Director for Workforce Development Strategies at Creating IT Futures, the charity arm of the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, which is a leading global nonprofit awarding professional certifications to industry professionals. Gretchen Koch and I spoke about efforts to expand opportunities for diverse student populations, including African-Americans and Hispanics, to earn college degrees and industry certifications and to find employment in the IT industry. Gretchen championed an apprenticeship-like model called a “long-term or sustained internship,” which is being prototyped in several forms in Chicago. The model allows an employer to try out a student over time in a number of different positions while the student gains knowledge and skills along an IT career pathway through paid internships. If everything goes well, the internship leads to fulltime employment. Essentially, it’s an apprenticeship without the regulatory oversight often associated with those that are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The first step in scaling a sustained internship model is to convene local employers and give them tools and resources to craft their own “work and learn” plan, but with a new “ask” ─ that is, do it differently. Until recently, many IT employers have relied heavily on seeking students who have earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science from the more elite four-year institutions. There are two downsides to this approach: First, these institutions typically lack the diverse graduates that employers seek. Second, many good IT jobs don’t require bachelor’s degrees.

There are five key components of the sustained internship model in IT:

  • Partner with less-selective local four-year institutions, community colleges, and high schools with the clear intention of attracting diverse students.
  • To counter employer concerns that more diverse student populations might not fit into their internal culture, give students significant opportunities to work in the companies and demonstrate they can do the work and fit in. This approach rules out a single, short-term internship opportunity in favor of rotating internships over a longer period.
  • Work with communities to support employer and school engagement. In Chicago, this has meant working with the Chicago Workforce Funder Alliance, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation, World Business Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and City Colleges of Chicago.
  • Through expanded employer engagement, devise real-world projects for students to work on in high schools and at community colleges, to feed their interest in IT.
  • To enable more students to participate in summer and year-long internships with businesses, work with nonprofits and employers to help pay for internships.

Several large IT employers have stepped up to try this approach, including Accenture, Aon, Cisco, IBM, and CompTIA. Cisco and the IBM P-Tech Program start their internships when students are in high school ─ IBM’s P-Tech students do two summer internships, one after junior year and another after the senior year and then continue on to earn IT degrees. Accenture, Aon and CompTIA start their internships when students are in community colleges—such as City Colleges of Chicago, which some students can enter with a number of college credits earned in Early College STEM programs through Chicago public high schools.

Several questions came to mind as Gretchen talked about the Chicago model:

  • Are there embedded industry certifications in these pathways? “Yes, there are various certifications IT employers put a high premium on, such as CompTIA certifications and certifications important to IBM, which focus on students acquiring the IT associate degree for applied sciences and incorporate CompTIA’s A+ certification into the curriculum. Cisco and Microsoft certifications are included as well.”
  • Is this model ─ summer internships wrapped around the academic year in high schools and community colleges ─ really an apprenticeship program? “The model is apprenticeship-like. The driving force for apprenticeships has been around registered apprenticeships and the standards set around them. When the Department of Labor issues grants, they’re typically focused on registered apprenticeships. But these can carry some restrictions many employers are not interested in. For example, the registered apprenticeship can require a four-year contractual commitment on the part of employers and a requirement about how much money employers must pay apprentices. Frankly, we’re looking for more employer-driven solutions.”
  • Is there movement to develop more employer-based solutions? “There’s beginning to be some alternative thinking around allowing intermediaries to play a role for employers to lessen the bureaucratic onus on employers in the registered apprenticeship model. And recently, in Chicago, the Department of Labor endorsed the Aon sustained internship program with City Colleges and Harper Community College as a ‘registered apprenticeship,’ which is a very hopeful sign.”
  • What are the areas of agreement between employers and educators in this model? “Everyone wants the same outcome ─ a high quality ‘work and learn’ model that employers can engage in through public/private partnership. We want a model that allows for full-time student employment to help both sides of equation ─ the demand side needs to increase and diversify the IT pipeline, and the supply side needs a broader employer relationship with educational institutions than we have now. Where they are primarily working with four-year institutions, and mostly with the more selective institutions, they end up reinforcing a white, male-dominated industry. Many IT employers are looking at their employee population and say they want to fix it, yet they keep doing the same thing when it comes to recruiting postsecondary students for IT internships that can lead to full-time employment.”
  • What’s the plan for next steps in Chicago and other locations? “There are several successes just a year into our Chicago trials, so the plan now is to try the sustained internship approach in various locations. We’re going to shine a light on this model to many employers. We want to get them to the table to hear what Aon, Accenture, Cisco, and IBM are doing and frame a similar public/private plan with community colleges and less selective schools that have a more diverse population of students. These are not the typical go-to places for elite employers, but this approach is proving to work in the Chicago prototype.”
  • This approach seems like a game-changer for the IT sector ─ and potentially many industry sectors. “That’s what we think. There are three benefits that make this model so compelling:
    1. We can increase the diversity and ethnicity of the pipeline by working earlier with students in high schools and community college with diverse student populations ─ rather than waiting for their junior year in college.
    2. The model gets less-selective institutions to work closely with employers to reap many long-term benefits. New symbiotic relationships develop between employers and institutions. Employers can provide input to the faculty on the currency and relevancy of their educational curriculum and course content. Too often, the faculty members are not out there in the real world, so this employer engagement is helpful ─ the opportunity for face-to-face relationships with professionals in the industry sector you’re teaching to is a bonus to the education community and employers alike.
    3. For the first time, we can give students at community colleges who don’t get considered for internships at the high-powered employers, the opportunity to prove what they can do in entry and mid-level positions at these places of business. It really is a win-win proposition.”

Whether we call these new models apprenticeships or sustained internships, this is an idea whose time has clearly come.

Tracy Chen
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
August 8, 2019

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.