Why Isn’t IT Operations an Apprentice Trade?

The United States is, at present, experiencing record or near-record (depending on whose numbers you believe) low unemployment, making it hard for employers to fill jobs. One of our country’s largest generations, the Baby Boomers, have already begun to retire and will continue to do so in droves over the next few years, further reducing the available workforce. While the Millenial generation is pretty sizable, few appear to be opting for careers in IT Operations compared to other fields. As a field, IT Ops is distinctly middle-aged, with an average age in the mid-40s in most countries. Employers find it difficult to fill positions, and I’d submit that it’s their own fault. And it’s fixable.

IT Operations is not a career we should be expecting four-year universities to handle for us. Universities have historically been terrible at keeping up with the rapid pace of change – the technologies most popular when you start your degree program will likely be useless and outdated by the time you finish. Universities rarely help people adopt a “lifetime learner” mindset and habit, which is a key to thriving in the Ops field. Universities in the US also force most students into a crippling level of debt at the most vulnerable time of their lives, often forcing them to forgo things like home purchases – a major driver for our economy and a stabilizer of our society in general – until far later in life.
It’s madness, and there’s no reason for it.
In June of 2017, the US administration – via executive order – essentially ended years of Federal oversight for apprenticeship programs. I’m a graduate apprentice myself; while on paper the Federal oversight of these programs seemed like a good idea, in practice it was a lot (a lot) of paperwork with virtually zero upside for the actual apprentice. I would argue, therefore, that companies need to invest in their own futures and start an internal apprenticeship for IT Operations.
An entry-level job in IT Ops requires nothing more than the very basic skills any high school graduate will have: very basic English communications skills, a very basic idea of how to do very basic math, and an ability to dress oneself for public appearance. And I mean, this is IT we’re talking about – “dress oneself” doesn’t come with a high bar.
The basic technology knowledge (not skills) someone needs are also readily obtainable. I created a learning path on Pluralsight for exactly this purpose, and someone who completed it would be ready to obtain a handful of popular entry-level IT certifications.
From there, most organizations need a mix of standardized baseline skills – think Microsoft’s MCSA or Red Hat’s RHCSA – along with specialized, only-used-in-this-company skills, procedures, and approaches. There is zero reason why a company couldn’t bring on a high school graduate, run them through an education program, pay them a very entry-level salary, and then spend four years making that person into the exact administrator they’ve always wanted. An enormous pool of job candidates graduates every year from high school in every area of the US, and many would jump at the chance for this kind of apprenticeship.
A Google search for “starting an apprenticeship program company” brings up Department of Labor tips and information on starting a program, along with tips and resources from numerous trade groups. There’s literally nothing stopping most companies from taking control of their own staffing destiny for a change. Stop trying to hire high-skilled individuals and make them instead. And hey – there are tax credits to be had! Most states, and certainly the Feds, offer credits – sometimes even grants – for portions of the apprentice’s salary, which you can attribute to on-the-job training.
Yes, some of your graduates will leave for other companies. That’s normal, expected, and desireable. You’ll have to remain a competitive employer in order to retain talent, just as always. But graduate apprentices are something like 70% more likely to stick with their employer, all other things being equal, out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude.
Yes, you’ll have to develop a program. Formal education is a part of it – about 10%, in my apprenticeship, which amounts to about five weeks of classroom time per year. But on-the-job training is a huge part of it. Simply make a list of major tasks that your team performs at various levels, and have your apprentice work through that list. For each task, they’ll partner with a senior staffer who teaches them how to do it – not incidentally transferring all that valuable and undocumented “institutional knowledge” locked up in your senior admins’ heads.
Yes, it’s a bit more work than just hiring someone. Or is it? “Someones” are increasingly hard to come by, and can you honestly tell me you enjoy the IT hiring and interview process? Where your main “filter” is a bunch of stupid resume criteria like the latest MCSE, a 4-year degree (PhysEd, anyone? That’s relevant…), or something else?
I would love to see more companies in the US do the right thing for their communities, for the next generation, and for themselves. If you work in a company that perpetually has trouble finding qualified entry-level personnel, that struggles to fill more senior positions, and that doesn’t mind doing something slightly out of the ordinary, start advocating for an apprenticeship program. You’ll make a huge difference in your life, in your organization’s progress, and in the lives of the young people you bring into our field.

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Hey, Don.
I'm 100% on board with apprenticeship and non-college training. I think college is insanely oversold and expensive for an entry-level IT worker.
I can see a lot of companies being resistant to the idea because, while you can certainly crank up a conveyor of home-grown admins, it will take a while before this thing is up and running. I can't see most Jr. Admins being anything more than clueless for the first year, and 2+ years before they can start engineering things.
It's tough if you need someone who knows Windows and PowerShell right now (or as for me lately, 4 months ago).


As much as I love, think and try to practice the apprenticed model for IT Ops I believe you will get employees that will be resistant to "For each task, they’ll partner with a senior staffer who teaches them how to do it – not incidentally transferring all that valuable and undocumented “institutional knowledge” locked up in your senior admins’ heads." It would be interesting to see the percentages willing to train up junior staff and knowing that once the vaulable knowledge was transferred what is stopping the company from making them redundant. On the other hand, I recently left a multinational company after 12 yearsand I was for the last 3to 4 years wishing to have a junior to pass on my knowledge which fell on def ears. So I left the company for a govt job and i was replaced by someone who was hired the day before I left. 1 day of handover. Even with documentation their is no way the replacement was going to be much value for months. Not only did I change jobs but I retired from my passion of ice hockey goaltending. The difference there is I have been mentoring junior goalies and was gratefuly allowed to place one of my padawan's in Goal to keep my team ticking along as top in the league. You need the right Senior staff (and/or a way to protect/compensate their job security) for the apprentice model to work.


This is so true! I (unintentionally) had this sort of experience getting into IT, and it was invaluable. I was a summer volunteer - not even a paid intern or apprentice - doing mundane IT tasks like upgrading computers from Windows 3.1 to 95 or from WordPerfect 5.1 to Office 4.3. I quickly got sick of swapping floppy disks, so I asked the actual IT people "can't we put this on the network or something" and, most importantly "can you show me how?" Soon I was tweaking NetWare logon scripts to map drives, writing batch files to start the installs, and creating answer files so the installs were mostly automatic. Over more summers - eventually as a paid intern and ultimately moving into a part-time then full-time position - I learned networking, telephone systems, OS and app deployment, and so many other pieces of the trade.
I was very fortunate to have people who took an interest in my career, let me try some crazy things (like deploying SUS to manage patches), and allowed me to make some mistakes so I could learn from them. This helped me develop an incredibly well-rounded background as an IT Pro and set me up for a great career. I ultimately got a 4-year MIS degree, but I've only used a fraction of what I learned through all those courses. The hands-on learning in the "real world" has been far more valuable for more than just for the technical skills. Learning how to learn, ask the right questions, and interact with other people is something that doesn't come from a classroom alone.


I couldn't agree more, I think you are absolutely correct. Companies would benefit greatly from training up the exact systems/network/database admin they want working for them.
Great article!


Don, I completely agree with this, even in Australia this is a problem. I'm 27 and frankly I love IT Ops.
I speak as someone who has been working in IT ops for 7 years, and will finally complete University, hopefully by the age of 29 - with 40% of my degree completed years ago.
Down here, A university education is comparatively cheap, and if you don't or can't go to university, we have other alternatives like TAFE that are much cheaper, and tend to teach more skills and do participate in apprenticeship type programs. I have experienced both systems, and while there is merit to both, starting out, I definitely used more of my TAFE learning than University. Also, it is difficult if I look for new work, because everyone seems to want a degree in IT or CS - but I am starting to see this change, at least here.
I think there is another side to this problem though. I feel that newcomers to IT tend to get pushed in waves to a certain field, based on the perceived skill shortage in that area. It was app developers, At the moment there is a big push towards pen-testing and security, and while I respect that we do need good people in this area, we don't need everyone doing security, we need people thinking about security in the other things that they do.
In this way, we as an industry (companies and educators alike) create these skill shortages and we do need to get back to a baseline that allows people to grow in the direction that they choose.
Great post!