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IT Pre-Apprenticeship Framework Component 4: Development of Skills Through Hands-On Activities and Work-Based Learning

This is the fourth component of the Framework for a High-Quality IT Pre-Apprenticeship Program from JFF’s Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning.

Work-based learning (WBL) is a crucial component of any successful pre-apprenticeship program, because it strengthens participant training and skills gains through application in a real-world setting. WBL is especially critical in IT because many employers require at least one year of experience in the IT sector as part of their hiring process. WBL can provide a way for individuals to build their work experience, gain essential skills (see Component 2: Alignment with Skills Sought by Local Employers and High-Quality Apprenticeship Programs), and build digital literacy through meaningful exposure to the hardware and software used in in-demand occupations. In addition, many IT employers are averse to long-term training because of the rapidly changing needs of the sector. Embedding WBL within a pre-apprenticeship program offers a shorter-term strategy for individuals to demonstrate their competency with in-demand skills to employers.

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should embed hands-on activities into the curriculum, including WBL or on-the-job learning, that are relevant to the target occupation.

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should be creative in identifying hands-on and WBL opportunities, because they are not as widespread in IT as in many other sectors.

WBL is particularly valuable in IT but hard to achieve, so pre-apprenticeships may have to rely on other hands-on activities to contextualize learning. Examples of effective WBL activities for the IT sector include internships, job shadows, mentoring, and service and volunteer projects. Service learning offers a way to provide real-world experience even without employers that are prepared to offer paid work-based learning. High-quality pre-apprenticeship programs should engage with employers to develop these activities to ensure that the skills training provided is in alignment with employer needs. To do this effectively, partnerships with employers and WBL providers should clearly identify the role that the partners will play, outline how skill gains will be documented and tracked, and include options for internships or other training placements.

Skills Applied in a Future Career

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should structure hands-on activities to make clear what skills are gained, how they are validated, and how they can be applied in a future career.

In addition to best practices across sectors for skills validation, IT pre-apprentices can particularly benefit from the creation of portfolios and hack-a-thons.

Pre-apprenticeship programs in IT should look to the best practices from across sectors in designing WBL activities. Programs can also consider how to supplement WBL or work around the limited opportunities to connect participants to meaningful IT work experience in this sector by adding reflective practices that help them identify how the skills they gain translate to a range of IT occupations. Examples of effective activities that hold particular value in IT include the creation of portfolios that track skill development and credential attainment, and talent-demonstration events such as hack-a-thons. Inviting employers to participate in these events as judges, or as mentors in other activities, can help them better understand the skills that pre-apprentices can bring to their companies.

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should structure hands-on activities in a classroom, worksite, or lab to be experiential, problem-based, and designed with input from employers and apprenticeship sponsors.

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should draw on best practices for employer-driven, hands-on training designs regardless of industry sector.

Involving employers in the design of hands-on, problem-based, and experiential activities is particularly important in IT because many employers have concerns about skill and credential needs and the length of training participants engage in prior to entering the workforce. This can often result in employers using hiring proxies (like the requirement of a postsecondary degree for a job where the work does not actually require one) to select applicants instead of considering knowledge gained in programs such as pre-apprenticeships. By participating in the design and facilitation of these activities, employers can experience the value of the training and better understand the level of preparation it provides participants, which can ultimately remove barriers to the IT industry for a wider population of workers.

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should prioritize opportunities for WBL in which the participant completes meaningful job tasks in a workplace.

WBL opportunities can be difficult to find among IT employers, but pre-apprenticeship programs can look to non-IT employers with IT needs as WBL hosts.

IT employers sometimes trust work experience even more than credentials or degrees. Yet this creates a catch-22 where IT employers are hesitant to provide that first, valuable experience. Pre-apprenticeship programs may need to be creative to find employers who are willing to host WBL experiences such as internships. One place to start is by connecting to non-IT employers that have significant IT needs, such as schools, local governments, finance and insurance companies, hospitals, and manufacturers. Training providers that offer pre-apprenticeships in multiple sectors can begin with employers in other industries that they already work with.

IT pre-apprenticeship programs should use WBL to develop participants’ understanding of and ability to navigate company and industry culture, as well as specific position functions and workplace policies and procedures.

IT-focused WBL can help pre-apprentices understand how work cultures and careers differ between IT employers and non-IT employers that have IT jobs.

The unique structure of the IT field, with a split between IT industry employers and employers from other sectors that contain IT departments and jobs, requires a different kind of introduction to, and exploration of, industry and company culture. High-quality pre-apprenticeship programs use WBL as a way to help participants experience the differences between IT employers and non-IT employers with IT needs. Programs can also use WBL to help participants understand the full range of IT careers available across IT and non-IT industries and how to fully access them. This is most effective when the WBL is coupled with meaningful career exploration and includes opportunities for participants to reflect on the activities they are doing and skills they are gaining, and connect their hands-on work to different occupations.