Tech apprenticeship program Apprenti graduates its 1st class, sending workers to Microsoft, Amazon and others

By: Nat Levy

Tyler Walser needed a new direction.

A born and bred Seattleite, Walser’s studies and career have taken him to a variety of places, starting in the military, then to film school in Florida. He earned an MBA through the University of Phoenix taking classes in the evening. He didn’t think his job as an administrator at a union hall was setting him up for future success, so he started researching apprenticeship programs.

“I was exploring fields that would offer a lot more challenges and learning for the rest of my life because I’ve already done college, I have a master’s degree,” Walser said.

Now, Walser is one of the first graduates of Apprenti, an initiative of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute that helps people build skills to break into the technology industry and places them at big companies.

Walser, with his 10-month old baby Dempsey on his hip, joined his classmates on stage at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center in Seattle last week as part of the first graduating cohort for the program. He’s got a job waiting for him at Microsoft working on Visual Studio developer tools.

Tyler Walser and Dempsey walk the stage at Apprenti’s graduation ceremony. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The first graduating class has 48 students, serving as a “beta test,” according to Apprenti Executive Director Jennifer Carlson, for the 350 other students in the program now. Started in Seattle two years ago, Apprenti is now in 11 states.

“This is like the first stepping off point for the program,” Carlson said. “These are the pioneers, if you will, the folks who have kind of led the charge in making this a viable system for everybody else who comes after.”

Apprenti matches qualified applicants with tech companies and provides them free instruction through coding boot camps and other training programs. The program chooses new locations based on demand from employers looking to get involved.

The first cohort did apprenticeships at Microsoft, Amazon, Avvo, Comtech, F5 Networks and Silicon Mechanics. About 75 percent of the graduating class will either stay with the company they apprenticed at or have another offer. A significant chunk of the class is going to Microsoft, Walser said.

Alana Franklin is one of them. Franklin has a degree in music and vocal performance but ended up in the tech world, or at least, tech adjacent.

Before joining Apprenti, which helped her land a job at Microsoft working on projects for developers, she was an executive assistant at Amazon and worked at a couple startups before that.

She was “working around developers and having tons of friends who are developers but not ever having any experience in that myself,” Franklin said. “I hated what I was doing and I knew how much money everyone else around me was making.”

Money is certainly a draw for making the jump to tech. The average age of students in the program is 31, with an average salary of $28,000 before coming to Apprenti, said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the WTIA. Many students are under-employed when they join, while about a third of them are unemployed.

Schutzler says the average post-apprenticeship salary is around $80,000, with many of the graduates pulling in six figures right away. The program draws people from all walks of life, from truck drivers, to pharmacists, to boxing coaches to movers.

Jennifer Carlson, executive director of Apprenti, speaks at the graduation ceremony. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Apprenti participants must first pass a screening covering math skills, the use of logic and critical thinking in problem solving, and emotional intelligence. About 30 percent of applicants make the initial cut. The program has committed to taking more than half of its apprentices from underrepresented populations.

Once candidates clear the hurdle of an initial screening, tech companies do “blind” interviews that omit information on education and work experience. Whiteboards are not allowed. Apprentices are chosen based on their potential and fit for a team.

After a person is selected for an apprenticeship, Apprenti works with the company to figure out a course of training. Some apprentices take coding classes full time, then start work. Others begin with a mix of classes and working.

Apprenti doesn’t do the training itself, which lasts about two to four months, but contracts with coding boot camps such as Code Fellows, Coding Dojo, Galvanize, TLG Learning and others.

For Walser and others, the pipeline to jobs in the high-paying tech industry has a chance to change their lives. But he also thinks the training has set his cohort up to succeed in the industry.

“In tech you’re constantly learning; you’re constantly trying to keep up with new technologies and find the latest and greatest,” Walser said. “One of the best skills they provided us was re-teaching us how we learn and how we learn best, so that we can apply that to whatever we need to.”