The tech industry, though thriving, often can involve a complicated hiring process. Companies looking for the best-of-the-best expand their searches to other states and countries, which means future employees might have to uproot and relocate.
While this is not always negative, it can be difficult to manage on a large scale. In 2016, Mark Meyer and Vishwa Prasad, presidents of CodeSmart, Inc. in Lacey and People Tech Group in Bellevue, respectively, were brainstorming ways to simplify the process of finding new employees.
“I got to thinking: What if we were to put seeds in the ground and grow our own (talent)?” Meyer said.
With this metaphor in mind, the two drew up plans for the Olympia University of Business and Technology (OUBT), which opened in 2017 under Meyer’s leadership. The nonprofit school offers highly focused courses to students looking to get started in tech — the seeds, if you will. The school creates an industry catalyst helping would-be techies avoid barriers like cost, location, or the need of previous experience.
“The minimum requirement is that you know how to turn on the computer and use a browser,” Meyer laughed.
Classes are run in four locations: Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellevue. Two tracks cater to people who know nothing about coding and to those who have some background experience, lasting either eight or 14 weeks. And because Meyer and Prasad are invested in the idea of shaping their future employees, their companies cover course fees for students.
While these classes are ideal for coding novices, the team wanted to take it beyond the basics. A student who finishes up with a course at OUBT might be a well-planted seed receiving the right amount of water. Meyer, however, needed to figure out how to coax out a sprout.
The next step? An internship program.
“The internships aren’t exclusive to OUBT students; there are so many other people coming from Bellevue College or Bates Technical College that are great as interns, too,” Meyer said. “Or some people come in self-taught. But they all need that real-world experience to round them out.”
Interns might be at CodeSmart or People Tech anywhere from three months to a year, Meyer said. Usually, if they performed well, they’d come on board as an employee. It worked well enough — that is, until a better option presented itself, and drove the home-grown employee vision to completion.
“(Early last year) I was at a conference down in Olympia that opened my eyes to the concept of apprenticeships,” Meyer said.
The apprenticeship differs from the internship in that compensation is more than a monthly stipend: Apprentices are paid a salary as full-time employees — including benefits — for one year. Internships now are used as a sort of four-week testing period to see whether a candidate would make a good fit in the apprenticeship program.
“So now it’s become a three-legged (approach),” Meyer said, building on his metaphor for growth. “I put the seed in the ground; I water it; I fertilize it; and within a year I have a fairly ripe plant that I can use to further my business along.”
The program, which launched in August, ultimately became the second registered IT apprenticeship program in the country. It’s called ACTiV, which stands for Accelerated Career Training and Innovation. Apprentices can spend their year at CodeSmart, People Tech, or one of two other approved companies.
Currently, 16 individuals — 12 in Bellevue and four in Olympia — are working as apprentices, scheduled to complete the program later this year. Ideally, those apprentices will be welcomed on board as standard employees with a modest salary boost.
The flow between the nonprofit school, internship, and apprenticeship that has been established over the last several years was no small investment by Meyer and Prasad: The companies pay for students at OUBT; they pay stipends to interns; and they pay salaries to apprentices. And there’s some risk involved, too.
“Nothing keeps them from wandering off somewhere else,” Meyer said of the apprentices, once they have wrapped up their year with one of the four companies. “They’re by no means required to stay with the company if it’s not a good fit.”
But Meyer and Prasad have calculated that this potential risk is worth the reward: Home-grown employees whose knowledge and training comprehensively fit their companies’ needs — and who feel particularly loyal to the companies for having made such intentional investments.
And if not? The flipside isn’t so bad, either.
“Someone can start from scratch with me, and in 18 months have the tools they need to be successful in a focused field,” Meyer said. “Not everyone is going to stay with me forever; I understand that. If I can just continue to be another source of providing quality tech employees locally, I’m happy with that.”