Programs that expand the size of the workforce will be critical to sustain Nashville’s growth, particularly as the health care sector tries to establish itself as a health tech leader. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Apprenti Tennessee, a tech apprenticeship affiliated with a Washington state program that trains employees for Amazon, will be launching this fall in Nashville. As employers around the city, and state, struggle to fill tech positions, this program could train potential employees with skills critical to secure open positions.

The partnership, led locally by the Nashville Technology Council will start training the initial cohort of 15 individuals in September with the commitment of having the trainees in their year-long apprenticeship on Jan. 2, 2019.

There are an estimated 2,000 open positions around the greater Nashville area, according to NTC, and since the state’s unemployment rate is hovering at a record low, it can take employers months to find qualified candidates.

The surge in demand around Nashville is driven by the growing health care tech industry, an increasingly robust financial services sector and the fact that the proliferation of technology makes every business a quasi-tech company, said Brian Moyer, President and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council.

“Our colleges are going to be turning out a fraction of that. We are going to have to grow our own,” said Moyer.

 

Apprenti is a ‘puzzle piece’ in effort to ease workforce constraints

Tennessee is the second affiliate state and the Apprenti program is the first of its kind in the Southeast.

Around greater Nashville, there are an estimated 41,300 tech workers across all sectors, contributing about $6 billion to the economy, Moyer said.

The state was an attractive choice for the next phase of Apprenti because of the seemingly unquenchable demand for the workers and the infrastructure built through the Nashville Technology Council and the Nashville Software School, said Karen Manuel, national operations manager of Apprenti through Washington Technology Industry Association.

It wasn’t hard, Moyer said, to get the initial group of companies on board to take apprentices.

The first corporate partners include 3-D Technology Group, Change Healthcare, Asurion, Community Health Systems, Bank of New York Mellon, Eventbrite, Center for Medical Interoperability, Ingram Content, Ingram Barge, Lifeway, TekLink, InfoWorks, Brookdale, Kraft Technologies, and UBS.

“It’s the perfect time to be rolling this out. The need is really high,” said Manuel, who came to Nashville to introduce the program. “We have the same need in Washington state.”

Moyer said he’s working with officials from Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis as well as the state to take the Apprenti program statewide once the model is successful in Nashville.

Apprenti Tennessee is a “piece of the puzzle, not the silver bullet,” said Moyer, adding that if it’s not processing 1,000 trainees in the future then “is it worth the effort?”

 

The quest to be a health tech leader conflicts with multidimensional growth

Programs that expand the size of the workforce will be critical in order to sustain Nashville’s growth, particularly as the health care sector tries to establish itself as a health tech leader, said Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at The Brookings Institution.

The greater Nashville area has been growing “so fast and so robustly” that demand is going to be around for a good, long time, said Muro, one of the lead authors of Brookings’ watershed 2016 study on the potential of Nashville to be a health tech giant.

The report called out the labor pool as a constraint for Nashville’s future as a leader in health care tech. Muro said local groups, agencies and officials  were serious about trying to grow the pipeline. It’s improved but it’s still imbalanced.

“You’re really growing in such a multidimensional way it’s really putting pressure on the labor market. It’s a good problem to have, but it can constrain growth if you don’t have enough of this type of educated worker,” said Muro.

About a quarter of Nashville tech jobs in 2016 were what Brookings calls mid-tech jobs, which don’t require a bachelor’s degree. It signals to Muro that the area is ripe for more avenues to getting people into jobs without a traditional degree.

That could help the companies that are scrambling to find tech employees.

LBMC, a professional services firm in Brentwood, finds itself competing with some of the largest health care companies in the country when it scouts for workers, said Jessica Utley, director of LBMC human resources.

“Nashville has been able to attract just enough to get by, but is really going to need to ramp up its skills opportunity for underserved populations, women and African Americans and so on,” said Muro. “Nashville is at an all-hands-on-deck moment and will need to really scale up its pool of talent.”

The Nashville Tech Council hosted representatives from the Nashville Area of Chamber Commerce, YWCA, Empower and the Martha O’Bryan Center, among others, on June 28, to introduce Apprenti Tennessee so they could get word out to prospective employer partners and student applicants.

 

New, faster programs harken back to long, ‘forgotten’ history of hacker culture

Facing a tight labor market — which brings recruitment costs related to either poaching or relocating new hires — employers are beginning to assess candidates without the traditional education background.

There’s a growing focus nationally on direct experiential learning and non-degree certification as ways to ready a workforce quicker, said Muro.

There’s always going to be a place, Muro said, for highly trained technology innovators, particularly in Nashville, where so many health care companies are trying to redesign or launch innovative, complex products. There is chatter and speculation that AI will replace coders and basic computer science but Muro and his colleagues don’t see that as an immediate issue.

Yet thousands of positions around Nashville — not to mention the state — could be filled with people who are new to the tech world, and trained via quicker, more efficient methods.

That’s not always the case. Muro and Manuel said they hear about unnecessary credentialing and employers preferring candidates with a traditional higher ed background.

“There’s the long history of hacker culture,” said Muro. “It’s sort of ironic that we’ve forgotten about that.”

Apprenti, which launched two years ago in Washington, set out to prove to companies that they should be willing, and excited, about hiring people without traditional backgrounds, said Manuel.

Seattle doesn’t have enough people with the skills companies are looking for, and the tech sector as a whole has a problem with diversity.

The Washington team talked to employers to find out what they needed and then structured the job descriptions and necessary skills through the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We want to prove to companies they can get great workers,” said Manuel.

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