Missoula College launches IT apprenticeship program with local firms

Three students, Austin Koburi with Allegiance, and Austin Martinez and Sam Bartsch with First Call, signed up for their IT apprenticeships on Tuesday at Missoula College. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Three Missoula College students were signed up to work for IT companies in Missoula on Tuesday, as part of the college’s new information technologies apprenticeship program that “will turn heads across the country.”

“This is groundbreaking. There have been very few states that have been able to create a scalable apprenticeship model for the IT sector,” Missoula College apprenticeship liaison Dylan Rogness said.

The apprenticeship signing included four different local companies, including Allegiance Benefit Plan Management, First Call Computer Solutions, Univision Computers, and Blackfoot.

Lt. Governor Mike Cooney said that the program will allow businesses to train apprentices and also allow them to fill in gaps and meet demands during the present workforce shortage in Montana and across the nation.

“Governor Bullock and I have made it a priority to expand the number of apprenticeship opportunities in the state, and at the same time, expanding apprenticeship opportunities into non-traditional fields like health care, accounting, advanced manufacturing and IT,” Cooney said. “Time and time again, Gov. Bullock and I hear from employers and businesses that their biggest challenge to growth is the shortage of workers.”

According to Cooney, since 2001, over 7,000 apprentices in more than 60 occupations, from plumbing and wiring to phlebotomy and meat packing, have used the earn-while-you-learn model.

“Almost 90 percent of apprentices stay in Montana after completing their program, and this retention is key for the state to grow our workforce within,” he said.

Tom Gallagher, associate dean of the Missoula College, said that the college provides other ways for students to train through job shadows, practicums and internships.

“These activities help students connect classroom experiences with roles in the workplace,” Gallagher said. “Apprenticeships are registered with the state of Montana and the Department of Labor and Industry, and students earn an income while completing their education. Employers are able to access skilled workers during a tight labor market and low unemployment so apprenticeships are really a win-win for everybody.”

Margaret McManus, vice president and chief administrative officer of Allegiance Benefit Plan Management, said that apprenticeships are valuable to the company, having two other apprentices from the college working in medical claims service and accounting.

Austin Koburi, a student at Missoula College, is the company’s first IT apprentice, having helped product users with issues and providing entry-level computer service for about a month. He’ll work for Allegiance for a year.

“We were able to design [the apprenticeship] the way we wanted to. We wanted to incorporate some study time for the students that we’ve had,” McManus said. “This is the third apprenticeship we’ve taken advantage of.”

Conor Smith, chief executive officer for First Call Computer Solutions, accepted two apprentices from the Missoula College on Tuesday. Smith said that the company provides over 35 IT jobs in western Montana, but without workers with formal education, IT companies couldn’t manage.

“We as employers, private industry, have got to invest, and we’ve got to continue to work with government, higher education, frankly all of academia, to invest better, too,” Smith said.

The Information Technology program at the college provides students with branches into network and cyber security and programming and app development, which emphasize in data modeling, networking, operating systems, PC hardware, customer service, and others.

Each student completes 144 credit hours over two years and about 2,000 hours in on-the-job training through apprenticeships, where students can become employed later on.

Spreading the word about the new apprenticeship program started in May, with four IT employers currently interested in hiring students to train. The program is expected to grow, Rogness said.

“This has never been done. I don’t think in the country at this point,” Rogeness said. “Creating a scalable model that brings so many employers to the table and everyone gets registered with the state at the same time, that really shows that this can go state-wide,” Rogness said.