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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

How government can rebuild digital infrastructure and support diversity and inclusion

As the pandemic has shown, it is clear the country’s digital infrastructure is unable to meet the needs of the American people. People are out of work in record numbers at the same time that the nation is coming to grips with the fact that much of its IT systems are outdated and must be rebuilt. 

Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt set the country to work building roads and aqueducts following the Great Depression, there is an opportunity to put people back to work by repairing our crumbling digital infrastructure. By equipping unemployed individuals with on-the-job training, those living in poverty can emerge from this pandemic with the skills to participate in the digital economy. 

Government IT managers can play a key role in facilitating this transition. They can create their own in-house apprenticeship programs. They can partner with organizations to develop specialized training programs or they can outsource an apprenticeship program to create the workforce they need. 

If agency IT managers help direct their organizations toward a new way of thinking about apprenticeships and training, they can not only help their agencies with workforce development, they can also help reshape the economy in an equitable, diverse and inclusive way. 

Developing an in-house training program

There are many resources available for agencies starting an in-house training program for apprentices. For example, in 2019 IBM made its apprenticeship model available in a pilot program for several California agencies, including the Government Operations Agency, Employment Development Department, Labor and Workforce Development Agency, Department of Technology and SEIU Local 1000. 

This program is specifically designed to address a statewide skills shortage in three critical fields: mainframe system administration, software engineering and application development. These valuable skills are likely in-demand within every department, in every government organization. 

Even if an apprenticeship model like IBM’s is not available, there are many learning management systems (LMS) that can help train apprentices while they also develop the needed tech skills. 

With the pandemic, LMS have been receiving significant investment, but current systems aren’t equivalent to in-person instruction for producing a qualified workforce. One reason may be because of the LMS’ asynchronous learning environment that allows students to pop-in and out at any time. As a result, apprentices are unlikely to engage with each other or the instructor in real time. It's also possible that existing LMS create more of a “checklist” response from apprentices rather than engaged learning. 

When implementing a LMS, agencies should look for a system that creates a collaborative environment, beyond learning the coding languages, and provides a space for critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills. Besides the coding abilities, soft skills are critical to producing a successful tech workforce.

A LMS that offers a collaborative environment would still provide other resources and modules, but wouldn’t lean on them as the main source of learning -- instead they would be supplemental. This approach leverages a virtual, online classroom that students could gather and learn together in real-time. A LMS that can mix the soft skills of in-person instruction with the module learning of the virtual world creates technologists equipped to solve the most complicated challenges -- in this case the government's crumbling digital infrastructure. 

Develop specialized training programs with third parties

Not all agencies have the bandwidth to create an entire apprenticeship training program in-house.  Those that don’t might consider working with a third party to develop the specific curriculum they need. For example, legacy systems may require developers that understand COBOL so they can translate existing applications into a modern language to better handle heavy traffic. Agencies can work with a coding school to develop a curriculum that includes the basics of COBOL but focuses on teaching cloud-based technologies to create dynamic, intuitive and scalable automated processes. Working with a third party to create a specialized training curriculum creates the entry-level talent agencies need while also supporting important diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. 

Partnering with a third party to bring in apprentices 

The last option is to outsource the entire apprenticeship program to a third party.

Outsourced apprenticeship models are becoming increasingly common because it puts the burden of finding apprentices, educating them and providing them with on-the-job training on the third party that specializes in this area.

These programs fill a gap by facilitating training that can be tailored to an organization and offering a path to success for an underemployed/under-represented workforce. Apprenticeship.gov lays out many of the benefits of an apprenticeship model.

A primary benefit of outsourcing the program is that it requires an outside/experienced firm to:

  • Vet workers and instill agency culture.
  • Recruit and develop a diverse and highly skilled workforce.
  • Improve productivity.
  • Reduce turnover, improve loyalty and retain top talent.
  • Demonstrate investment in the agency workforce.

Government IT managers have a role to play

The apprenticeship model removes many barriers that keep those in marginalized communities from breaking into the technology industry. Financial restraints often keep people from the lower third of the economy from enrolling in the educational programs that traditionally lead to careers in the technology industry. Earn-while-you-learn apprenticeships remove those barriers and could contribute to the nation’s economic recovery in a more equitable way.

IT managers can play a key role in how the digital infrastructure of the nation is rebuilt and can also be the driving force that helps uplift people who are underemployed and unemployed. Whether agencies leverage a LMS to build their own workforce, work with a third party to develop a tailored curriculum for an apprenticeship program or outsource the development of an apprenticeship program completely, this method of workforce development will benefit government agencies and the economy overall. 

About the Author

Jake Soberal is CEO and co-founder of Bitwise Industries.

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