Tech Has A Big Diversity Problem. Initiatives Like Verizon’s Apprenticeship Program Aim To Help Fix It
A couple of years ago, Kendra Roberson’s prospects seemed bleak. The then 38-year-old had been struggling to find work, other than a few short-term stints secured through a temp agency.
In the past, Roberson, who graduated high school and had started, but not completed, a college degree, had always found a new job reasonably quickly. This time felt different. “I wasn’t receiving responses [to applications],” she recalls. “I was two car payments behind. I was sleeping again on a friend’s couch.”
Fast forward to today and Roberson is leasing her own apartment in Dallas, has a full-time job as a software developer at telecommunications giant Verizon and is studying for a degree in business administration and IT management.
Roberson’s change in fortune is testament to her drive and determination—and to the impact of a program she joined that was created by Verizon’s IT team, known as Global Technology Services, to create more diversity in its recruitment pool. Initially dubbed Project Athena, Verizon is now using it as a blueprint for a company-wide initiative known as the Verizon Thrive Apprenticeship Program, which aims to recruit many more people from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups.
Diversity initiatives are typically run by HR departments or dedicated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) teams. But Verizon’s experience shows that initiatives created within IT departments can make a difference in an area where many more workers from diverse backgrounds are badly needed.
The power of partnerships
“Diversity in tech has been a huge challenge and continues to be a huge challenge,” says Shankar Arumugavelu, Verizon’s global CIO. “Given this backdrop, we believe that we [have] established an apprenticeship program that can create solid, entry-level developers from a pool of people with limited to no technical experience.”
Verizon’s program offers lessons for other tech leaders thinking of launching or expanding DEI initiatives. One is that it can be helpful to partner with other organizations to help identify candidates. Verizon’s tech team worked with Generation, a nonprofit that runs multi-week-long courses to help spot people with the aptitude to become tech workers, for its first intake in 2019 which ended up enrolling 40 people.
Generation also helped market the opportunity. Roberson found out about the program from a flyer she was given at a Texas agency that helps job seekers find work. Maliah Taufiq, another graduate of the program, discovered it when her brother-in-law passed on some details about the program he’d received from a military veterans organization.
Roberson and Taufiq say that once they started the main, six-month paid apprenticeship, which Verizon ran in locations in Texas and New Jersey, the pace was intense. With no guarantee of a job at the end of it, the apprentices knew the stakes were high.
“I think the hardest thing, honestly, was feeling imposter syndrome,” recalls Taufiq, who has a degree in healthcare but was keen to explore opportunities in the tech industry. Roberson also at times questioned whether she was really suited to a tech-focused program: “You start to doubt your abilities, like you think others know more than you because they are going faster than you.”
Arumugavelu says the apprenticeship began with online learning and coaches were then brought in to work onsite with the apprentices and help them learn fundamental programming concepts as the pace picked up. Verizon’s IT team partnered with Multiverse, a company that helps design and deliver apprenticeship programs, and brought in some of its own staff to help with coaching.
This in-person work was considered so vital to success that the IT team decided not to run another program last year because of concerns over Covid-19 health risks. Last month, though, it admitted a new group of apprentices, half of whom are women and three-quarters of whom are people of color. They began the program, which has now been extended to a full year, by working remotely before moving to in-person learning in September.
Another reason the initial program worked well, says Arumugavelu, is that at a relatively early stage the apprentices took on projects of real value to Verizon’s business. That helped them get a good feel for the kind of work they might end up doing if hired—and gave Verizon executives who acted as mentors an opportunity to see how they would fit into existing teams.
Of the 40 people who began the 2019 program, 29 completed it and took jobs with Verizon. Most of them were women. Taufiq, who worked on a network-management project, was subsequently hired by the team overseeing networks at Verizon and has since been promoted there. Roberson is creating software to support digital services used by customers, as well as helping to build new development capabilities.
Their success and that of other graduates of the program explains why Verizon’s HR team is now using it as the model for its company-wide apprenticeship scheme that’s part of a broader commitment by the business to arm half a million people by 2030 with the skills needed to succeed in what it calls “jobs of the future.”
Industry-watchers note that CIOs such as Arumugavelu are ideally positioned to act as catalysts when it comes to firing up wider DEI efforts. “Technology is ubiquitous. It drives innovation, collaboration and other activities,” says Rob O’Donohue, who covers DEI and other leadership issues for research firm Gartner. “From that perspective, CIOs really have at their fingertips the ability to give underrepresented communities access to valuable skills and opportunities.”
Roberson certainly feels better prepared for the future thanks to her experience at Verizon. “Here I am just finding out what it is to be passionate about something [at work],” she says. “It’s never too late to start something new.”