San Francisco IT Apprenticeship Program Gains Traction with Help from JFF


Facing a steep learning curve, TechSF was having trouble launching an apprenticeship initiative—until JFF stepped in as an advisor.

Published may. 31, 2020

According to the Brookings Institution, 90 percent of the new high-tech innovation sector jobs that have been created in the United States since 2005 are located in just five cities—one of which is San Francisco.

While the tech boom has contributed substantial benefits to those cities, it also threatens to widen the digital divide, leaving behind large numbers of residents who cannot compete for the new positions because they don’t have the access to that sector of the economy or aren’t able to pursue the training they need to develop the necessary skills.

Helping City Residents Acquire Tech Skills

To help address that problem, the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development in 2012 launched TechSF, an initiative that provides free education, training, and employment assistance to San Francisco residents who want to build careers in IT. With an emphasis on helping participants find rewarding jobs, TechSF provides funding to training providers that helps San Franciscans develop in-demand skills and then be placed in employment.

The initiative quickly proved to be a success—in just a few years, TechSF has placed over 3,000 people in paid positions at 500 different companies, including tech giants like LinkedIn.

Then, in 2015, TechSF was awarded a $3 million grant through the U.S. Department of Labor’s American Apprenticeship Initiative—an effort to increase the number of apprenticeship opportunities in high-growth fields like IT.

Building a ‘Holistic On-Ramp’ to IT Careers

Orrian Willis, TechSF Program Manager in San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, thought the grant presented TechSF with a great opportunity to improve its offerings by adding apprenticeship to its mix of services. He sees apprenticeship as a “holistic on-ramp” into careers in tech because, rather than first training people and then placing them in jobs, apprenticeship offers an opportunity to train people while they work. The model benefits workers by enabling them to earn money while gaining practical hands-on experience that helps them master skills they learn in the classroom, and it benefits employers because they can ensure that trainees are learning skills that are in demand in their industries.

However, Willis acknowledged that his office faced “a steep learning curve” when it came to running tech apprenticeship programs. It took time to develop a strategy, and TechSF’s new apprenticeship initiative was slow to catch on. Challenges included a lack of dedicated staff and difficulty securing industry engagement. Companies worried that setting up apprenticeship programs would require heavy investments of time and other resources, and they were leery of welcoming a government agency into their operations.

Then, upon receiving a grant from Salesforce.org, the nonprofit charitable arm of Salesforce.com, JFF was able to step in and help TechSF begin to address those challenges in late 2018.

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There are so many nuances in trying to navigate the apprenticeship world—down to the size of a company you’re working with or what occupation it is.

Orrian Willis, TechSF Program Manager, San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development

Gaining Momentum

“The technical assistance received by our office through the JFF Salesforce.org grant has been invaluable,” said Willis. “Since starting to work with JFF, there’s a number of milestones we’ve achieved. We can say we finally have momentum.”

Within the past year, he said, TechSF apprentices have begun working, new companies have started signing up to offer apprenticeships, and the city has received commitments from employers interested in hiring nearly 200 apprentices.

To reach this point, JFF first helped TechSF understand what a quality apprenticeship program looked like, and then coached the organization on how to gain buy-in from government and business leaders and navigate the requirements of registering a program with the government. JFF attended meetings with employers and government officials to answer questions and held a weekly call with TechSF staff to review strategy and talk through challenges.

A key hurdle came when TechSF recognized the need to become an apprenticeship sponsor—an organization that performs the administrative and operational responsibilities of an apprenticeship program. Previously, TechSF staffers had helped individual companies become sponsors of their own programs. That approach had worked, but it was time-consuming and burdensome. By becoming a sponsor itself, TechSF could expand its apprenticeship initiative to more organizations at a faster pace.

Getting a Green Light

However, TechSF staffers weren’t sure how the San Francisco city attorney would respond to the idea of a city agency becoming an apprenticeship sponsor, so JFF stepped in to help explain the required qualifications and responsibilities of sponsors, paving the way for the program to proceed.

“I don’t know how we would have gotten the green light on this had JFF not walked us through the conversation with the city attorney and addressed follow-up questions he had,” said Willis. Having overcome that hurdle, TechSF has been able to accelerate the growth of apprenticeship programs in the city.

Willis said he appreciates JFF’s approach to training TechSF employees in the fine points of apprenticeship; he even likened himself to an apprentice of JFF.

“The way our team has been able to navigate these challenges is under the tutelage of [JFF advisors], who have worked through these same issues before,” he said. “There are so many nuances in trying to navigate the apprenticeship world—down to the size of a company you’re working with or what occupation it is. In the year and a half we’ve been having calls with JFF, I’ve yet to see them get stumped by a question, and these are all questions that stumped our team.”

JFF is really at the forefront of [the apprenticeship] movement in nontraditional occupations and companies.

Krysti Specht, Senior Community Development Specialist, San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development

Driving Interest in New Sectors

One of the reasons TechSF may have initially faced challenges launching IT apprenticeship programs may be that apprenticeship has traditionally been regarded as a training model for blue-collar occupations, not highly skilled professions like tech. But JFF has been a strong advocate for moving apprenticeship into new sectors and helping companies in a wide range of fields recognize it as an effective way to provide high-quality training and meet employer demand for skilled labor.

Krysti Specht, a senior community development specialist in the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said JFF’s experience in that area played a role in its ability to advance TechSF’s apprenticeship initiative.

For example, in addition to providing hands-on support, JFF also delivered a presentation about competency-based Registered Apprenticeship to a group of San Francisco tech employers, educators, and workforce development professionals. Willis said those in the audience appreciated the opportunity to learn about apprenticeship from an organization with as much expertise as JFF. “Having a practitioner with years of success in implementing the model was received extremely well,” he said, noting that TechSF has met with a number of employers who attended the event to get them started with their own programs.

“JFF is really at the forefront of [the apprenticeship] movement in nontraditional occupations and companies,” said Specht. “They’re studying what’s going on nationally and are able to educate us about it. It’s been really significant that we have JFF behind us.”

This product was funded by the generous support of Salesforce as part of JFF’s Apprenticeship Awareness and Expansion Initiative. The national initiative expands apprenticeship and other high-quality, structured work-based learning programs through on-the-ground technical assistance and a resource and communications campaign.