Minnesota employers hire IT apprentices to boost minority ranks of skilled workforce

Apprenticeships aren’t just for manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs anymore.

A several-year-old apprenticeship movement, most recently in information technology, has rooted among Twin Cities employment-trainers and business partners that are rebounding from the pandemic and recession.

This has led to accelerated hiring of trained IT folks who often lack a four-year degree in computer science, something once required by employers. And it has led to more people of color hired in tech jobs.

“We saw IT coming,” said Louis King, who has led Summit Academy for 26 years.

The apprenticeship model puts more emphasis on hands-on learning and certifications than years of classroom learning.

The North Side nonprofit employment trainer has expanded from the construction trades and entry-level health care careers to fast-growing IT credentials. More than 70% of Summit students are minorities.

U.S. Bancorp, a growing Summit employment partner and financial supporter, has hired seven software developer apprentices from Summit within the last several months at starting salaries that top $60,000. Another five hires will be made by year’s end.

Andy Bingenheimer, a senior vice president of IT at USB, said the Summit partnership delivers talented, nontraditional hires into the IT department. The diverse hires fill in-demand jobs and often bring fresh approaches to technical issues and problem-solving.

“Our tech developers are pretty welcoming,” Bingenheimer said. “We work well together.”

USB Software Enterprise apprentices Dwyne Smith, 38, James Nogler, 37, and Azra Jones, 24, are among a dozen Summit graduates at the company.

“I like the camaraderie and that everyone comes together as a team,” said Jones, who left a low-wage, part-time grocery-store job to complete the 20-week Summit IT program.

Jones said he also feels appreciated for his first-year contributions.

Greater MSP, the regional economic-development agency, also is working with Accenture, Aeon and other companies to expand white-collar apprenticeships. And the state of Minnesota is advocating for more apprenticeships.

Enrollment at Summit, other job trainers and two- and four-year colleges fell during last year’s recession. Summit, which doesn’t charge tuition, saw vocational-training enrollment decline from a peak of 799 students in 2019 to 717 in fiscal year 2021 that ended in June.

As the pandemic subsided, Summit expanded IT training, with the financial help of another partner, Target Corp. Summit’s IT enrollment increased from 79 to 195 over the last couple of years.

Overall enrollment at Summit has risen since spring, as the pandemic eased and the economy expanded.

Summit reported $9.1 million in revenue in fiscal 2020. About half is from government grants and the rest from private donations, corporate support and earned income. The organization, like many, survived the pandemic thanks to government support to help its low-income students, including a transition to online learning that works well for IT.

King started widening the doors to Summit-business connections 20 years ago. King, who spent 10 years as an Army artillery officer, realized trade unions and construction companies weren’t keeping their commitment to minority hiring on publicly funded projects. He voiced concerns and negotiated solutions that eventually led to increased hiring.

Several years ago, King pioneered an IT partnership with growing Atomic Data, which manages data centers and sought entry-level workers to staff IT-support desks and other technical jobs that starts at around $40,000.

Moreover, at least since the 2008-09 recession, minorities, including immigrants, have provided the incremental employment growth in Minnesota, said Oriane Casale, director of labor market information at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

Baby boomers, predominantly white in the local workforce, continue to age out and retire.

A just-completed analysis of the 14-county Twin Cities metropolitan area by DEED labor economist Tim O’Neill, shows minority employment has rebounded from last year’s downturn.

Minorities, particularly Blacks, were disproportionately displaced last year because they were heavily represented in hospitality, personal care and service businesses that slowed or had to close.

However, the overall minority-employment trend will continue to grow. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of jobs held by white workers in the Twin Cities area declined by 2%, or just over 30,800 jobs. This was offset by faster-than-labor-market job growth of minorities. For African Americans that was nearly 20,000 jobs over five years and 19,400 for Asian-Americans.

O’Neill’s updated analysis found Black employment in professional, scientific and technical services grew by 91.5%, equivalent to about 1,900 jobs between 2010 and 2020. Total employment in those industries grew 29.4% during that period.

Black employment in construction grew 173.4%, equivalent to approximately 1,500 jobs. Total employment in the industry grew by 55.2%.