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Pittsburgh Tech Council Launches Apprenticeship Program

After years of struggling to find ways to diversify the workforce, the Pittsburgh Technology Council is following the model used by skilled trades union to pay women and minorities while they learn high-tech skills.

(TNS) — Lainey Yockey had worked for three years as a communications manager at a nonprofit agency when she realized there wasn't much opportunity for growth.

The 27-year-old Greenfield resident applied a number of places and received little feedback, and she wasn't interested in building a huge debt by going back to college. Then, she saw a Pittsburgh Technology Council ad for a new program called Apprenti.

Now she's part of a yearlong paid apprentice program at Wolfe LLC, a Green Tree company that produces gift cards and is owned by the president of the tech council.

"I'm learning coding and helping to build websites," Ms. Yockey said. "I am hoping that at the end of the program they will keep me. There are no guarantees, but things seem to be going well."

After years of struggling to find ways to diversify the high-tech workforce, the Pittsburgh Technology Council is following the model used by skilled trades unions to pay women and minorities while they learn high-tech skills. The program hopes to train at least 100 every year to help them land good-paying jobs, said Audrey Russo, CEO of the technology council.

Ms. Russo said she and council President Jason Wolfe were motivated to look for ways to increase diversity in the high-tech work force after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The numbers are pretty grim: Only about 16 percent of high-tech jobs in the Pittsburgh area are held by women, and eight of 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania have no people of color working as software engineers.

Ms. Russo and Mr. Wolfe stumbled across a similar apprentice program in Washington state, and after months of closed-door discussions with local company leaders, foundations and others, they set up a similar program in the Pittsburgh area that started in September. So far, more than a dozen people are working as apprentices at companies such as Highmark, DuoLingo, Industrial Scientific and FedEx.

"There's no reason this [apprenticeship program] can't work for tech jobs," said Ms. Russo, who described the program Friday as part of a presentation by Carnegie Mellon University and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to encourage women and minorities to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

"How is someone who has been disconnected going to go through a program like this with no pay?" she added. "We're taking all of the barriers away."

Using seed money from the R.K. Mellon Foundation, a state grant and contributions from council members, the agency created a nonprofit known as Fortyx80 to administer the program. In addition to advertising through the tech council, the agency does direct outreach through facilities like Monessen Public Library to recruit participants.

People interested in the program take a basic skills test where they have three chances to score 80 percent. If they are accepted, they first go to a 12- to 16-week boot camp for basic training paid for by the council before they begin the actual apprenticeship, where they must be paid a minimum of 60 percent of what their job would normally pay..

Ms. Yockey took her initial training on computer coding at Academy Pittsburgh in Allentown before Mr. Wolfe accepted her as an apprentice at his firm. He now has two others, including one he hired directly who didn't need basic training.

"These people are doing tech work, learning good-paying jobs," Mr. Wolfe said. "They're not in the basement, stuffing envelopes."

During Friday's discussion, Ms. Russo said the Pittsburgh Technology Council identified some problems it hadn't realized previously. For example, it's not an easy commute from a place like Monessen to Pittsburgh, so the agency is looking at what it can do to help ease transportation concerns.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation secretary, Yassmin Gramian, told Ms. Russo to contact her after the meeting to see what the state might do to help address that problem.

Ms. Russo said she is "over the moon" with happiness about the program.

Mr. Wolfe, a graduate of the Milton Hershey School for low-income children, said it is "personally satisfying" to be able to provide opportunities for others.

"A lot of people have been talking about diversity for years," he said. "We are actually doing something about it."

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