The Future of Work: The Evolution of Apprenticeship Onboarding at 8th Light

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The evidence supporting the value of employee training is undeniable. Professional learning and growth opportunities increase employee engagement, improve satisfaction, and drive potential. According to one survey, 40% of employees who receive poor job training leave their positions within the first year. Clearly, this first year is critical to employee retention and engagement efforts, and employers should recognize the value of employee training programs during this key decision making time for the talent they've just onboarded.

8th Light didn't have these studies handy when we created our Modern Apprenticeship program 12 years ago. Instead, our extended onboarding and training program felt like a natural extension of our values, and a good way to ensure all of our employees were prepared to improve the quality of our clients' software—and the more success we saw from it the more we invested in it.

New apprentices seeking to become software crafters are grouped into cohorts, and undergo a formal process of cultural onboarding, expectation setting, and initial direction. They also benefit from a collaborative and supportive program that intentionally incorporates work similar to what they will be asked to do as crafters. They are immersed in a competency-based curriculum, which allows us to be deliberate with how we train and prepare our professionals for successful and productive partnerships with our clients.

The apprenticeship has been the primary engine behind 8th Light’s success over the last 12 years. Largely, it was driven by the individual efforts of mentors and apprentices discovering the best ways to teach and learn; and while this distributed approach allowed us to innovate rapidly, it also meant we were losing some of the knowledge-sharing benefits from one apprenticeship to the next.

As our company has grown in size and scope, we were presented with the opportunity to evolve our apprenticeship program to better capture our shared knowledge and continue providing our apprentices with the best experience and learning environment to keep them happy, satisfied, and engaged.

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Here are five improvements 8th Light has implemented to positively impact employee onboarding.

1. Providing formal mentor training and explicit documentation.

We want to ensure the apprentice experience is consistent, and fulfilling, across the board. Therefore, we have organized and formalized mentor training sessions. These efforts support and equip every mentor with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate potentially challenging situations and help an apprentice successfully complete their apprenticeship.

2. Increase the pool of resources and mentors available to apprentices.

The traditional structure of an apprenticeship is a 1:1 apprentice-mentor relationship, where a dedicated mentor works directly alongside an apprentice to provide guidance and instruction on areas of challenge or weakness. While this element of our program is still in place, we don’t want to turn our backs on the collective pool of knowledge our employees have to offer. Different 8th Light employees are made available for additional support to mentors and apprentices alike, including:

  • Instructors who are dedicated to teaching concepts and leading workshops for a cohort of apprentices;
  • Group of mentors who assist apprentices in less formal ways; and
  • Senior-level crafters serving as on-client mentors on client projects who oversee the apprentice’s work, review their code, and offer feedback about their work.

3. Let apprentices learn in a classroom with other apprentices, while also collaborating on workshops and small projects.

One of the primary goals of an apprenticeship is to introduce and instill company culture and demonstrate what it’s like to work on a software team. Long periods of solo work does not reflect our values of collaboration, and is antithetical to traditional apprenticeships. Additionally, an independent period isn’t especially helpful for people who learn best in more collaborative environments, and thus limits our ability to connect with and hire more diverse types of learners. By reducing the period of independent study, and leveraging existing team resources, we can better equip our apprentices with the necessary consulting or collaboration skills they will employ on client projects.

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4. Expose apprentices to live production systems earlier to gain real client project experience.

Apprenticeships, at their heart, are on-the-job trainings. Inherently, they are a blend of classroom work, independent study, and the practical application of knowledge. By introducing an Apprenticeship role on client projects, we are able to increase the value we provide to our clients, while helping develop the skills of our new crafters.

5. Treat apprenticeship as continuous learning.

Apprenticeship can be seen as a temporary period, one from which you graduate. As a part of our company philosophy, 8th Light places a high value on the spirit and attitude of continuous learning, and that means that “graduation” is a false signifier—it is just one milestone among many in a career. Rather than deferring to the apprenticeship as a blanket term of readiness, we will be able to speak specifically about one’s experience and skill level putting them in a position to address a client’s unique needs.

A culture of continuous education and a focus on mentorship has been the driving force behind 8th Light’s success over the last 12 years. Our new Modern Apprenticeship program will double down on our commitment to fostering this culture of continual learning, and building productive partnerships with our employees, our clients, and our communities. We are taking a lesson from own curriculum and always looking to evolve our program, making adjustments that will address tensions and improve the experience for apprentices, mentors, our clients, and our company overall. As the company has grown, our motivations are the same: We want to improve the quality of software in the world by engaging in productive partnerships, fostering an inclusive community, and teaching anyone with a willingness to learn.

Continual improvement is core to who we are at 8th Light. We’ve been making a lot of improvements to how we incorporate our principles into our recruiting, hiring, and onboarding efforts and we look forward to sharing our progress with you.

Ryan Verner, Director of Software Education

Ryan Verner is 8th Light's Director of Software Education.

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