The Advocate

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, General Informatics and Eatel are among the first wave of companies taking part in a highly touted program aimed at boosting the technology workforce in Baton Rouge.

Officials announcing the launch of Apprenti on Thursday said the program eventually will expand to New Orleans, Lafayette and other regions of the state.

It’s an effort to help grow the tech talent pipeline in Louisiana, which has long been a goal of economic development leaders seeking to diversify the state’s economy and boost the technology sector.

“With every city in the world competing for the available tech talent, it’s not realistic to assume we can recruit into the state all the talent we need” to fill jobs here, said Genevieve Silverman, president and CEO of Research Park Corp., which operates the Louisiana Technology Park on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge.

The program also will place an emphasis on hiring more diverse candidates, including minorities, women and veterans, Silverman said, though all are encouraged to apply.

The Apprenti program is the first registered tech apprenticeship program in the state, officials said. Silverman said 10 to 20 apprentices will be placed in Baton Rouge at Blue Cross, General Informatics, Eatel and TraceSecurity during a pilot phase, kick-started by a $130,000 grant from the Louisiana Workforce Commission. NexusLA, a Research Park subsidiary, is sponsoring the program.

Anyone 18 years or older, with a high school diploma or the equivalent, who is eligible to work in the U.S., will be eligible for the Apprenti program. Salaries start at $35,000 for the 12- to 14-month apprenticeship, and jump to $45,000 after the period is over.

The program will place people in cybersecurity jobs to begin, and is expected to include additional tech fields as it grows.

Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said a group of tech executives from Baton Rouge meet regularly, and the top issue that comes up is the need to grow talent.

While schools like LSU, Baton Rouge Community College and Southern have added computer science courses, the pipeline is still “far from sufficient for an industry that is growing well faster than the supply of workers,” Knapp said.

Mo Vij, founder and CEO of General Informatics, said he tried to start his own apprenticeship program a year ago to help find and train workers, but decided to partner with RPC once it pursued the Apprenti program. He said a lack of talent is his “biggest concern.”

“LSU only graduates so many people every year,” Vij said.

Louisiana has struggled to build a robust technology workforce, even as the state has landed some wins in the sector. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has announced in recent months a 2,000-job center in New Orleans from DXC Technology and a doubling of CGI’s workforce in Lafayette, among others.

Part of the reason the state has struggled, officials have said, is because pay rates here are far lower than tech hubs throughout the country.

Data reviewed by the Research Park Corp. board earlier this year found the median salary for a software developer locally was about $66,000 a year, compared with $93,000 a year nationally.

Many workers jump ship to places like Austin, Texas, and California, Vij said.

IBM was the most high-profile tech company to miss hiring targets for a state agreement. The firm brought a “client innovation center” to Baton Rouge during the Bobby Jindal administration at a state-financed building downtown. The Edwards administration extended the state’s deal with IBM after it fell short last year, and the company narrowly met its hiring targets for the year ended June 30. It must now hire the equivalent of 225 workers by next June at an average of $46,000 a year.

Edwards’ chief of staff Mark Cooper said Thursday that the governor wants to bring tech companies to Louisiana, which is not possible without enough workers.

TraceSecurity, a local cybersecurity firm founded in 2004 in the tech park, is also an Apprenti partner, and was one of the first companies to show interest. The firm previously said there’s a “huge shortage” of cybersecurity experts in Baton Rouge, and training has been costly.

Apprenti was launched in 2015 by the Washington Technology Industry Association, and is billed as the nation’s first registered tech apprenticeship program. The program was backed by public dollars and set out to place 600 apprentices over five years. Last fall, it expanded nationally into Oregon, Michigan, California and Ohio.

The program in Baton Rouge will find and vet potential employees and put them through a four-month training program before placing them with a company for a year or more as an apprentice. Many companies hire apprentices full time. LanTec, a corporate training center with locations in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, is partnered with LWC to provide training for the program.