Coding program seeks apprentices to close skills gap

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — At any given moment in Metro Detroit, companies are looking to hire 900-1,300 Java developers, but tech talent can be tough to come by. To help close the skills gap, a Detroit-based training program for computer programmers is offering six-week apprenticeships.

Grand Circus looks to train 15-20 apprentices. Outside of a $100 deposit, which is returned upon course completion, the offering is free. Residents of Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park are eligible, said Chioke Mose-Telesford, director of community programs at Grand Circus.

Grand Circus’ application process runs through Feb. 12.

In reality, the program lasts longer than six weeks. Once accepted, apprentices are required to do two weeks of independent study, so they’ll be ready on Day One. Then for six weeks, they will work 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, learning Java and completing small projects.

While students are not paid during the six weeks, Grand Circus is connected to a network of resources that can help students, including help with child care and transportation vouchers.

“We want to make this as accessible as possible,” Mose-Telesford said.

Applicants who pique Grand Circus’ interest will be invited to interview in-person later this month. The independent study period will be March 14-25, and class begins on March 28 and will run through May 6. Applicants need to plan to not miss a day, Grand Circus says.

Four days a week focus on technical training; the other day will address soft skills such as career development, Mose-Telesford said.

The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, which covered a group session late last year, the group that starts in March, and another in the fall, Mose-Telesford said.

After six weeks, companies that partner with Grand Circus come downtown to interview apprentices for 10- to 12-month positions. Four students from the first group of 22 graduates have been placed with companies, while others are in the interview process, Mose-Telesford said.

One of those apprentices, who is still interviewing for a position is Malcolm Childs, 24.

Childs, an Eastern Michigan grad with a degree in biology, had dabbled in technology before, and was doing freelance work when the apprenticeship came along. He describes the program as demanding but worth it.

In college, the rule of thumb is that for every hour students spend in class, they should be studying for two hours outside of it. As an apprentice, it’s more like four or five hours outside for every hour in class, Childs said.

“Sometimes, I’d stay up until 3, 4 in the morning trying to learn a concept,” Childs said. “It’s real intense and very demanding.”

Those companies pay apprentices, while Grand Circus keeps in touch with both company and apprentice to monitor progress. Apprentices come in monthly for “upskill” training and check in regularly with their mentors. Their pay will increase quarterly, as apprentices gain new skills.

At the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices walk away with a “journeyman” card that attests to their skill set. Whether they stay with the company they apprenticed with or find a different opportunity is a mutual decision, Mose-Telesford said.

James York, an instructor at Grand Circus, said apprentices will enter a favorable job market when they graduate.

“Most companies want to keep the developers they have,” York said, and others are always looking. York said he gets about a half-dozen recruitment calls a week. Being in demand allows for good working conditions.

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