Philly tech apprenticeship program lands major federal grant - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 11, 2015 12:19 pm

Philly tech apprenticeship program lands major federal grant

The underfunded Urban Technology Project, which works with Philly high school graduates, now has a chance to expand beyond computer support.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez meets one of the Urban Technology Project's Digital Service Fellows, December 2014.

(Photo by Kait Privitera for the City of Philadelphia)

Update: The City of Philadelphia and charter school network String Theory Schools will also hire Urban Technology Project apprentices. (9/14/15, 10:53 a.m.)

After watching its funding dry up over the last four years, IT apprenticeship program Urban Technology Project (UTP) now has a rare opportunity to expand.

The program, which trains high school graduates in computer support and places them at Philly public schools as technicians, is one of several Philly IT apprenticeships that are getting the majority of a $2.9 million, five-year grant from the Department of Labor. It’s part of the federal government’s biggest investment in apprenticeships to date — it invested $175 million to 46 groups across the country. Overseen by workforce agency Philadelphia Works, this was the only Philadelphia program to get funding.

The $2.9 million grant will also support behavioral health apprenticeship programs, other IT programs, like those at Philadelphia YouthBuild, and the development of training programs that will act as a pipeline for IT and behavior health apprenticeships.

It’s a big win for the budget-troubled UTP, but it also makes sense: Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has taken a shine to the program. Last December, his office chose Philadelphia as the place to announce the apprenticeship grant opportunity. He visited the School District and showcased UTP, shaking hands with the current IT apprentices, checking out laptops they had fixed and augmented reality apps they had built, alongside Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent William Hite.

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Perez later incorporated the story of Jessie Cunningham, a former UTP apprentice who now runs operations at Northern Liberties web dev firm Jarvus, into his stump speech. That story was first told by Technical.ly Philly, by the way.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see some innovative programs in action,” he said last March at the Greater Baltimore Committee. “At the Urban Technology Project in Philadelphia, for example, students receive hands-on-training and industry-recognized credentials through a computer support specialist apprenticeship program. I met one student, Jessica, who is now the director of operations at a software development firm. She said she feels just as qualified as her colleagues who earned four-year degrees, and she likened it to a board game, where she got to ‘skip ahead four spaces to payday.'”

hite nutter perez

Superintendent Hite, Mayor Nutter, Secretary Perez. (Photo by Kait Privitera for the City of Philadelphia)

The federal funding will allow UTP to hire more apprentices — 170 total over the next five years, starting with 20 in 2016. (This year, they had 17 apprentices and last year, they had 12.)

But the funding also presents a bigger opportunity, one that has to do with scaling. Right now, the program focuses on training students in computer support and getting them jobs as Philly public school IT techs.

But program founder Edison Freire has a bigger vision.

He wants to the program to teach more kinds of tech skills, like IT security, software development and networking. He wants to get more employers on board to hire UTP’s apprentices. The funding will allow him to develop these programs.

To start, UTP plans to work with Jarvus and Apple retailer Springboard Media, both of which have hired UTP grads and now plan to take on apprentices. Other orgs that will hire apprentices include the City of Philadelphia and charter school network String Theory Schools. Freire hopes he can prove to other companies that the apprenticeship model works and get them to participate in the program.

“It’s one way we can get underserved communities into the pipeline of these jobs,” Freire said.

It’s also one way to tackle the disparity between the number of tech jobs available and those with the skills to fill them.

edison freire

Urban Technology Project founder Edison Freire. (Photo by Kait Privitera for the City of Philadelphia)

Freire knows that it can be daunting for small firms to start their own apprenticeship programs (though some have done it, like Tonic Design). That’s where UTP can come in.

It’s played that kind of role for Jarvus, who has hired two UTP apprentices.

For Jarvus cofounder Chris Alfano, working with apprentices was a no-brainer. It’s a way to tap into a different talent pool, to work directly with students from the Philadelphia School District and to put it simply: it’s cheaper.

“I know that sounds like exploitation,” he said to us last summer, “but I think the real exploitation is the massive college loans that students are tied to paying off.”

If you’re interested in taking on apprentices, contact Freire at efreire@philasd.org.

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