At the Northwest Arkansas Council, we’re dedicated to growing a diverse and healthy workforce for the region. The pandemic has largely changed how we perform in our everyday lives and these changes may last forever. One of the biggest impacts has been within the working world. Most industries have felt the strain of shifts in work behaviors. As many individuals reconsider their approach to employment, companies are challenged with finding and keeping talent in unprecedented workforce conditions. One interesting approach in Northwest Arkansas is the successful apprenticeship program at technology company Affirma.
Founded in 2002 in Seattle, Affirma is a full-service consulting firm for strategy, technology, business and digital marketing. The company has grown its footprint considerably in Northwest Arkansas and its global reach spans as far as Australia. Affirma earned a spot on the Inc 5000 List in 2020 and some of its noteworthy clients include Microsoft, Google, Kaiser Permanente and TIME.
Alongside its impressive portfolio, Affirma offers a unique approach to attracting and retaining talent – its apprenticeship program.
Paula Wetzel, site director for Northwest Arkansas, is a huge proponent of the program. Born and raised in Arkansas, Paula went to the University of Arkansas for her master’s in higher education administration, then moved to Seattle where she met her husband, Joel, a senior architect at Affirma. As Affirma began looking for a new U.S. location, Paula and Joel advocated for Paula’s hometown of Fayetteville. The company founder, Mark Mason, visited Northwest Arkansas in October of 2018 and the deal was sealed. Affirma hired Paula as the main point of contact to the University of Arkansas to aid in recruiting interns from the university.
As Affirma was looking to expand its talent recruitment efforts, they met with the Northwest Arkansas Council to learn about regional tech talent development efforts. Things quickly progressed, and Affirma piloted a SharePoint apprenticeship program in partnership with the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences (ACDS). ACDS is a nonprofit focused on developing the state’s IT talent and getting more Arkansans into the tech sector. Through state and federal grants, ACDS is able to offer employers free recruitment and training services, as well as administrative support, so companies can hire qualified IT talent that meet their unique team needs.
When hiring for a job as specific as technology, it’s difficult to find people who are already trained in the unique programs a company utilizes. By utilizing the IT apprenticeship program, Affirma found an effective solution to that problem. After the first three apprentices came through and soared, Paula commented they plan to always have apprentices on board. “There is a huge untapped market of people who want interesting, challenging work,” Paula said. “We are excited to provide those jobs and the necessary training.”
One of the larger testaments to the apprenticeship program: 92% of the people they have trained still work for Affirma. When reflecting on the success of the program, Paula said, “these people are staying with us. They could end their apprenticeship and then go work somewhere else if they wanted to, but none of them have. The length of time it takes us to hire and train an apprentice is shorter than the amount of time that it takes us to recruit a person who already has that skill set.”
She continues, “We are able to find and train such good, motivated people who want to work in technology and who have life experience to bring to the table.”
Ryan Baggett is one of the apprentices that found Affirma through ACDS. Ryan holds a master’s degree in teaching and worked as a high school educator for nine years. He discovered an interest in the technology sector while observing his peer’s computer science classes and began taking similar courses on edX in his free time. When the pandemic hit and he faced the strain of teaching remotely, Ryan’s interest in technology turned into a desire to transition to a new career.
“Sitting in those classes ignited something in me,” Ryan explains. “It lit a fire under me to pursue something I truly love doing.” While researching jobs, he found ACDS which ultimately led him to Affirma’s program page. What impressed him about the apprenticeship approach was the hands-on learning that leads to a real-world understanding of a job in a short period of time. Ryan began his training as a Salesforce administrator and will soon begin leading development projects for clients.
A general conclusion made between both Ryan and Paula was that a previous education in tech is not necessary to succeed within the apprenticeship program. “Not everyone is a great fit for college, and I say that as someone with a degree in higher education administration,” says Paula. “Trade fields are growing, especially in technology. You get a great education working and anybody who’s motivated to learn is a good fit for the apprenticeship program.” Affirma now has five apprenticeships: SharePoint, NetSuite, Salesforce, Data & Analytics, and Infrastructure.
Ryan says he has learned quite a bit about himself through this program, including his capacity to pick up a new and different skill set so quickly. His advice for others looking to change their career path? “Start watching videos on YouTube or enrolling in edX for free or low cost courses,” he begins. “When you decide what your new direction is, just a little investment will go a long way with starting out in the field with an apprenticeship. If you’re willing to train hard, a company like Affirma is willing to stick with you.”
The Council formed a strategic partnership with the ACDS to bring tech talent development programs like the IT apprenticeship to Northwest Arkansas. The Council has worked with employers from across the region to bring awareness about the IT apprenticeship program and help make it a part of their hiring strategy moving forward. Over the past two years, employers have hired over 150 IT apprentices in the region. These employers range from startups to Fortune 50. “The Northwest Arkansas Council is excited to see the number of IT apprentices more than doubling year over year,” says Joe Rollins, workforce development director at the Council, “and we expect that trend to continue for the foreseeable future.”
To learn more about training programs like Affirma’s apprenticeship, visit CareersNWA.
If your company is interested in creating a training program for your industry, contact the Northwest Arkansas Council to learn more.