Education

YSU Workforce Accelerator Kickoff Draws National Employers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Re-establishing the role of apprenticeships in business is essential if America is to close the widening gap for in-demand skilled technology workers, say experts in the field.

On Tuesday, Jennifer Oddo, program manager apprenticeships initiative for IBM, presented Youngstown State University’s IT Workforce Accelerator Design Workshop to 40 business representatives from small shops to large corporations.

IBM and YSU first announced the partnership in November 2019. The accelerator will provide preapprenticeship training and apprenticeship enablement so local companies can train and prepare students and local workforce for high-tech jobs.

Asked when the program will get started, Oddo gestured around the room filled with representatives from Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., General Motors and FirstEnergy, as well as America Makes and local software engineering company SenSource. “It’s kicking off right now,” she said. “We are going to introduce our preapprenticeship program and once we get the DOL [Department of Labor] standards finalized and registered in the next few weeks, we’ll be open for business.”

Oddo said the turnout is exciting and speaks to how the leadership at YSU is innovating how higher education works, and IBM is proud to be a partner in this initiative.

“The workforce is changing as is the model. And what I mean by that is it’s time when government, higher education, industry and workforce system all have to come together to be part of the solution,” Oddo said. “When I looked at everybody here today, we have representatives from every silo of the workforce system coming together to solve the problem.”

The problem Oddo is referencing is the increasing demand for skilled technology workers in an expanding digital economy, which was the launch pad for the YSU, IBM Workforce Accelerator initiative in November.

Following the announcement, YSU went to work to build an ecosystem of employers for the initiative that will offer apprenticeships to either students on a four-year degree path or individuals looking to upskill for their career.

Dr. Brien Smith, provost and vice president for academic affairs at YSU, said finding employers to join the initiative appeared to be a challenge as many companies alluded to having internships or other programs to engage students.

“I’m really pleased to see so many employers here today. I was concerned that because it’s not something that many employers work with, apprenticeships, they might not catch on,” Smith said. “Many of the typical apprenticeships we think about might be blue collar jobs, but for this we’re looking at new collar jobs that are in great demand in the IT industry.”

Smith and others also noted that Oho and the U.S. Department of Labor invest in companies that offer apprenticeship opportunities. “Companies can get funding as well as get good employees,” he said.

Oddo described grant funding as being a secret ingredient that’s not well known to many employers, including $183 million the DOL received this year.

“State and federal funds that are available is not only a way to get more employers engaged but more importantly, it creates a pathway to open up opportunities and access to those who maybe don’t have a four-year degree,” Oddo said. “It’s an opportunity to serve the whole workforce, whether through a degree pathway or career reinventors. YSU is a catalyst in serving everybody in the community.”

During Tuesday’s event, some of those funding opportunities were discussed by Dr. Diana Elliott, principal research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy organization.

“The turnout is fabulous and it really makes me excited,” Elliott said. “We love to come to a city where there is so much potential like here in Youngstown and be a part of making something really amazing happen, and it feels like it has that potential.”

The Urban Institute has two projects funded by the DOL. One involves youth programs for people 16 to 21 years of age. The programs must actively work with high schools, colleges and employers to create an ecosystem where youth can move directly into apprenticeships and paid work.

The other funding path is a three-year project that is specifically related to technology occupations.

“We want to be part of just kick-starting tech apprenticeships. And tech is everywhere, health care, IT and manufacturing,” Elliott said. “There’s so much potential in sort of moving people into tech apprenticeships and really great, solid, meaningful middle-class occupations.”

The Urban Institute operates throughout the country providing free technical assistance and can provide employers funding to help them start up a program. For questions or interest in apprenticeship programs, email apprenticeship@urban.org.

“We have money to offset some of the training costs, and we’re happy to come and work with large employers, small employers,” Elliott said. “We’re looking for champions. People who want to be champions for apprenticeship and carry that forth and be part of the next wave.”

Learning about the available funding opportunities sparked interest in company representatives like Harsha Harish, IT manager for design and marketing solutions for Goodyear.

Harish sees the program as an opportunity for industry to leverage apprenticeships, especially with the federal grants.

“I think that’s a big win that a lot of companies are not aware of and an opportunity to bring in skilled workers not only in different areas, but retrain them using federal grants and even offset some of the wages,” Harish said. “I think that’s a big win for companies because it brings in more loyalty in the region they are working in so we’ll be able to see a lot more retention.”

The preapprenticeship program is a way for people who may not have four-year degrees to get certification and training for these in-demand jobs. Provost Smith said IBM was one of the first corporations to develop IT apprenticeships by envisioning that new hires don’t necessarily need to be college graduates with a computer science degree, but rather can be trained.

“IBM has many years of experience and they have all the tools, all the course content that’s online,” Smith said. “We’re so excited that IBM has agreed to let us use this course ware in training either our students here at YSU or members of the community as well.”

“There’s a whole big culture shift that needs to happen. Some people do not learn best by sitting in a classroom. They learn best by practicing and doing under the mentorship of others,” Elliott said. “Apprenticeship has been around for hundreds of years. Ben Franklin was an apprentice so it’s really baked into our American system so we just need to return to that.”

The preapprenticeship program is a way Harish sees to potentially help retrain people to bridge a gap and prevent brain drain in northeast Ohio.

“This is a tough area for recruiting. It’s one of the things we see when we do our hiring, especially from the outside and other states,” said the Goodyear IT manager. “People tend to look at Ohio as not the most exciting place to be in.”

But opportunities like the YSU IT Accelerator will help to provide opportunities to retrain people and fill the skills gap, according to Harish.

Oddo said that apprenticeship programs, no matter if a company is big or small, can be complex, but that’s where IBM comes in with YSU’s program in providing resources and a pathway to get apprenticeships up and running.

YSU is registering standards with the state and recently with the U.S. Department of Labor, and will serve as a sponsor of apprenticeship programs at a national level, which means they can support employers in all 50 states to help in reskilling the workforce, Oddo said.

“Why that’s important to small to medium-size businesses is they don’t have to rely on their own resources to stand up these programs. They can come right here to Youngstown State University, and YSU will help them get their programs set up, help them administer and help them also find training and wage offsets to support their programs,” Oddo said.

Elliott said that events like Tuesday’s are part of the institute’s strategies for its tech apprenticeship funding strategy.

“We want to go to cities where there is potential and we want to be part of creating a local ecosystem where this just takes off and is sustainable in three years,” Elliott said. “I think it’s really exciting to be here and see this momentum in the room and how excited people really are. I think this can be a really viable place for us to do some good work.”

Pictured: Jennifer Oddo, program manager apprenticeships initiative for IBM.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.