The skills gap is a growing topic of concern in America as a whole and in the IT channel in particular. When it comes to in demand jobs such as those involving data, cybersecurity or cloud developers, there simply aren’t enough people with the necessary talent to fill the demand. Stepping back and looking at the macro economic picture shows an even more worrisome trend as traditional jobs in fields such as manufacturing and mining disappear and are replaced by work requiring a knowledge of robotics, automation and computer programming.

In addition, it’s estimated that about 800,000 people currently in technology occupations will retire by 2024, according to industry analyst firm CompTIA’s Charles Eaton, and the lack of skilled workers to fill those vacated jobs is a real concern. At SXSW in Austin, Texas, this year, Eaton and a panel of experts led a discussion on the problems contributing to the skills gap in IT and what organizations can do to address it.

“From our point of view, the education system as it stands right now just isn’t going to ramp up fast enough to put out enough tech workers,” Eaton told The VAR Guy. “We're addicted to the four-year degree in this country. It's the only proxy that we have history with in terms of hiring. It's tough to break that addiction, and we have to find alternatives. In terms of alternatives, I think there needs to be a lot of different pathways.”

In countries such as Germany and Switzerland, apprenticeships have long been a common practice. The trend is beginning to make its way into the United Kingdom, says Eaton, and is showing significant promise.

Panel member Heather Terenzio-McCollester, CEO of Techtonic, struggled to compete in the tight talent marketplace with her small software development shop. If she did manage to recruit a high-quality developer, it wasn’t uncommon for a larger company to offer a big signing bonus and convince the programmer to jump ship.

Terenzio-McCollester also realized there are plenty of people who need a pathway into tech and the opportunities it provides. Specific groups such as returning veterans or graduates of the foster care system were prime candidates for the type of training program that would teach them the skills they needed to compete, while simultaneously giving Techtonic a stable of developers.

Terenzio-McCollester began an apprenticeship program with a focus on populations that aren’t well represented in IT. Eaton says that strategy has given purpose and mission to everyone who works at Techtonic, which helps make up for her inability to offer huge signing bonuses and salaries.

“Want to work in software development? Why not work with one that's got purpose and mission on the side, but still does a great job of building software?” asks Eaton. “I think her perspective is really good on how you do all that, how you get past the bureaucracy of a registered apprenticeship, which could be one of the harder pieces.”

Ardine Williams, VP for Global Talent Acquisition at Amazon Web Services, is in a similar boat. Although clearly AWS can afford to out-pay just about any other employer on the planet, the sheer numbers of skilled tech workers it needs posed a real problem for the tech giant.

Like Terenzio-McCollester, Williams developed an apprenticeship program that also places a focus on working with veterans. But while AWS is certainly happy to be helping America’s vets, they had another reason for turning to that group. Unlike disenfranchised youth or other demographics that are perhaps eager to learn but extremely green, veterans, says Eaton, come with a set of skills that make them prime candidates for learning IT skills.

For companies without AWS’s resources, however, figuring out the minutiae of how to develop an apprenticeship program can be daunting. A program from the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) called Apprenti focuses on helping employers get an apprenticeship program set up. Jennifer Carlson, another panelist and executive director of the WTIA, says that employers often look at the hassle and bureaucracy that comes with developing such a program and give up before they get started. She and the WTIA team developed a system to create intermediaries that deal with all the red tape.

For Carlson, understanding the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship is key. During the time someone is learning a new skill as an apprentice, federal law allows for certain breaks in how much they get paid. “That puts you in a spot where you can then get someone up to the competitive salaries, comparable salaries, but you're not having to break the bank in the beginning in these higher-wage jobs for someone who doesn't have any experience,” says Eaton.

Eaton says we all need to settle in for a painful period of adjustment as we figure out a way to address the problem of an American workforce untrained in marketable skills. The federal government needs to invest in training programs, especially in parts of the country that currently don’t have affordable access to IT training such as the rust belt or rural communities.

But the tech industry needs to be doing all it can to address the issue, as well. Eaton says we’re at the peak of open jobs in IT sector. Employers need to be creating many more jobs suitable for entry-level workers versus creating jobs requiring three to five years of experience right out of the box.

Over at Techtonic, for instance, Terenzio-McCollester has instituted pair programming where a senior developer works with a group of apprentices. While not skilled enough to develop full programs, there are tasks these entry-level workers can accomplish such as quality assurance and testing that offer demonstrable value. In the beginning of their careers, these type of tasks give them insight into the industry and teach them the basics so that nine or so months down the line, they’re able to start managing development projects on their own.

“As a country, I think jobs need to be re-thought in that way,” says Eaton. “There just won't be enough bodies to do all the work that's out there.”