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Apprentice program aims to address ‘brain drain’

Although the national conversation around the labor shortage focuses primarily on minimum-wage roles, a different kind of labor shortage is occurring in smaller metropolitan and regional centers across the United States. With the majority of graduates moving to larger cities post-study, many local businesses in smaller cities struggle to find qualified talent to fill open positions.

To address this “brain drain,” Western Governors University, or WGU, has launched a Software Developer Apprenticeship program with the aim to provide students with clear pathways to employment while also supplying local businesses with talent they can use to operate and grow their businesses. 

Developed through a collaboration with the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance (LVGEA), NV Workforce Connections, College of Southern Nevada, Western Governors University, GC2IT, and sponsored by IONnovate, the apprenticeship program provides students who have earned an associate of applied science degree or equivalent the opportunity to receive hands-on training in real business settings while completing the remainder of their studies. This means students can gain their qualifications while earning income and learning on-the-job skills that can be used to accelerate their careers. 

The apprenticeship program lasts between 18 and 24 months and is competency-based, which means students can advance in their coursework as soon as they display a mastery of core skills. This focus on practical application means students can progress through their studies at their own pace, rather than be constrained by the traditional tertiary education framework based on a defined amount of time per course. Students who take part in the program also gain the opportunity to complete the remainder of their bachelor’s program at WGU at no cost.

The first 10 participants in this program will secure roles at IONnovate, an application development firm in Las Vegas. As more students progress through the initiative, the program will expand to include more local businesses within the state.

Considering 41% of recent graduates don’t find work in their area of study, and with a survey from the Society of Human Resource Management finding that many recent graduates are rejected by employers for entry-level roles due to a lack of soft skills — problem-solving, empathy, adaptability and similar skills — the apprenticeship program has the potential to change the established study-to-work pipeline with a new transitionary framework that can work at scale. 

Research from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development indicates that the most needed area of expertise in Southern Nevada is software development. Additional reports, such as the Workforce Blueprint 2.0, released by LVGEA, echo this, stating that a clear need and significant opportunity for software development professionals in the region exists. Initiatives like the Software Developer Apprenticeship Program can address this need while simultaneously showing talent that they don’t have to relocate to larger cities to secure employment in their field. On a larger scale and in the long term, the program has the potential to accelerate Southern Nevada’s economy through industry diversification and talent retention. 

The apprenticeship program expands the structure of traditional apprenticeships in the United States, which focus primarily on trades such as carpentry, electrical and plumbing, to involve more occupations. Looking forward, there is potential for success if similar programs are deployed for areas outside of software development. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a clear need for nursing as one essential profession. If programs following the same model as the apprenticeship program are launched to provide nursing students with hands-on experience, shortages could be addressed much faster or mitigated entirely. Another critical area where a similar program could work includes teaching, a profession also in great demand across the United States.

Although the future of work is rapidly changing, it doesn’t have to be a cause for concern. Emerging initiatives like the Software Developer Apprenticeship Program showcase how these changes can be adapted for the better, providing students with real-world experience and businesses with a pipeline of work-ready talent. This is all part of WGU’s commitment to ensuring students can bridge the gap from talent to opportunity, and supporting the growth of local industries while also being at the forefront of the United States’ rapidly transforming economy.

Richard Benbow is the regional vice president (west) of Western Governors University.