In a tight labor market, on-the-job training is on the rise. At the Philadelphia Fed, a new apprenticeship program is connecting workers who have skills and experience to a career in information technology.
After eight years as a cable technician, Joseph Smith started thinking about a career. He was skilled in running lines and doing at-home installations, but as for troubleshooting and networking — the parts of his work he liked far more — he just wasn’t learning those skills on the job.
After hours, he enrolled in an online information technology (IT) certification program. He also started searching job sites, where he stumbled on an IT apprenticeship with the Philadelphia Fed.
“I jumped on the opportunity,” Smith said. “Working as a cable tech doesn’t roughly prepare you to, say, configure a whole network. This is definitely my entry point to learn IT and utilize my years of hands-on experience, while being employed.”
Smith is one of three apprentices who joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia earlier this year as part of a pilot registered apprenticeship program. Through a partnership with the Philadelphia-based nonprofit JEVS Human Services, the new 18-month program provides on-the-job training and mentoring for those interested in developing skills for a career at the Fed. The first cohort is working toward completing their apprenticeship as IT generalists, which will culminate in attaining a certificate of completion as fully qualified IT professionals, issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor.
According to Frank Doto, vice president of Human Resources at the Philadelphia Fed, supporting apprenticeships is just one way the Fed is focused on its dual mandate of stable prices and maximum employment. Doto sees on-the-job learning programs as a way to open more doors for workers and strengthen the economy at the regional and national level. “This program really grew out of our research around economic mobility and connecting workers who have the skills and experience — but not always the four-year degree — with on-ramps to a career,” he said.
With the tightening of the labor market, the on-ramps are growing, according to Edison Freire, director of gateway initiatives at JEVS Human Services.
“Companies are very aware that they are competing for candidates, and they know they have to invest in their employees,” Freire said in a recent interview. “Some are reactivating or increasing their training budgets, creating new opportunities for workers.”
Other employers are open to building partnerships that can develop into skills-based talent pipelines. Freire points to a new program with a local health-care organization that is helping to prepare high school graduates for medical assistant positions. The program includes classroom study, an accelerated summer training program, and on-the-job learning, once the students have passed certain certifications.
[Employers ] are tapping into a different talent pool that they previously hadn’t thought of as potential candidates. There is a willingness to invest in training and nurturing workers, which is also a tool for retention because it’s not just about a bottom dollar — it’s also about the promise of advancement.Edison Freire
Director of Gateway Initiatives at JEVS Human Services
An Entry Point
Chris Cheng admits that video games are what sparked his passion for computers. Cheng spent years working in the food services industry, but he always planned to pursue a career in IT.
In 2020, he enrolled in an IT training program through JobWorks, Inc., and earned his CompTIA A+ credential through the program. After graduating, he landed a position in the Philadelphia school district as a computer support specialist while he continued to build his education through online certifications. It was while Cheng was completing his CompTIA Network+ and Security+ credential that he learned about the new IT apprenticeship at the Philadelphia Fed.
“At first, I wanted to learn cybersecurity, but now I love what I am doing here with the team and hope to stay,” Cheng said. “I consider myself lucky to be here at the Bank, and I plan to keep learning new skills, getting experience, and trying to earn more certifications that can help me advance.”
Cheng is not alone. The number of students and professionals seeking short-term certificates and nondegree credentials is on the rise.
A conference hosted by the Philadelphia Fed earlier this year brought together researchers, policymakers, and industry experts to explore how and why this new area of education and training is growing, and what new opportunities it could present for both students and workers. Experts also discussed how greater measures of accountability are needed as more programs emerge, and the role of public financing when they compete with training offered through state and federal workforce development programs.
“Short-term certificates and noncredit programs do offer opportunities to learn and build new skills, particularly for those who may not want to or cannot afford to commit to four years of schooling,” said Dubravka Ritter, advisor and research fellow in the Consumer Finance Institute at the Philadelphia Fed.
But Ritter cautions that more research is needed. “We need to examine how these programs are delivering a return on investment for those completing them, and whether [the programs] are being promoted and accessed equitably. These are vital questions for educators, policymakers, and others to consider as the programs expand, and more students opt for this route.”
Diversifying the Workforce
Apprenticeship programs create opportunities for workers and benefits for a company. Drawing a wider talent pool helps employers solve hiring challenges and brings more diversity into the workplace. It’s an advantage that companies rethinking their recruiting practices and degree requirements are now realizing, said Freire.
“Research shows that diversity in the workplace often leads to a lot more innovation,” said Freire. “I think some companies are experiencing this and leveraging this moment to employ a thoughtful approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations.”
But having a support system to rely on is essential to integrate workers learning on the job. Apprenticeship programs through JEVS include in-person and virtual instruction to supplement what they are learning and applying on the job. JEVS also pairs apprentices with a coach to help them navigate their new environments and mitigate potential work‒life challenges.
At the Philadelphia Fed, the apprentices have access to a JEVS coach, as well as an IT employee who serves as a mentor. The mentor is a senior-level IT employee who provides on-the-job training and teaches the technical competencies needed to meet the requirements of the USDOLIT Generalist Registered Apprenticeship.
“Having an ‘on-the-job support system’ is key to the apprentices’ success,” said Matthew Ellis, manager of Talent Management and Organizational Development at the Philadelphia Fed. “Mentors provide training and technical guidance, but they also help the apprentices transition to the Fed workplace.”
Virgilio Espinal, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and started working in his family’s business during the pandemic, shared how important having that support really is. “I’ll admit, that first day was a little overwhelming,” he said. “But being in an environment where you know they actually want to see you grow, and they’re willing to put all these resources into helping you develop, you see yourself as an asset. You’re motivated to step up; you are your biggest champion when it comes to that.”
Looking to the Future
When asked about the future, the Philadelphia Fed’s apprentices seemed overwhelmingly hopeful.
“My goal is to become a network engineer,” Smith said.
Cheng showed off his growing collection of certifications.
And Espinal wants to become a mentor himself someday. He sees opportunities to grow his skills beyond IT and plans to leverage what he considers his most important asset: his “ability to connect with others through his caring nature,” he said. Cheng also shared a similar idea.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a widespread upheaval in the labor market and left employers scrambling to fill positions. But Freire sees this broad investment in the workforce — particularly for workers who are looking for pathways to careers — as enduring well beyond the pandemic.
“Yes, workers are looking for a good wage, but they also want to be treated with respect and dignity — not just looking at the bottom line,” Freire said. “There’s this recognition that [employers] ‘see a future for me and they’re investing in me.’ And I think that’s a very important message.”