This Chicago startup is using apprenticeship to get low-income learners into tech

James Risley

Apprenticeship used to be the norm for skilled laborers, where experienced pros would help train the next generation.

However, forms of teaching that were more adept at training large numbers of workers eclipsed apprenticeship, and now the practice is largely left behind. But one Chicago marketer is working to bring it back to life, with benefits for both clients and apprentices.

The Alliance Labs, which aims to bring down the cost of marketing for smaller firms that don't have standard marketing budgets, utilizes the help of apprentices to build custom websites for clients.

“There's a ton of work out there in the digital media space and there's a lot business for organizations that are not charging $200 an hour,” said founder Jon Schickedanz. “There's a lot of business for people that have got $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 budget ranges.”

According to Schickedanz, those kind of jobs aren’t really attractive to agencies that have a lot of overhead or freelancers who don’t have the time for lower-priced contracts. At the same time, there are a lot of people trying to break into the industry with “a little knowledge about a lot of things,” Schickedanz said.

The apprenticeship model helps with both problems. Clients with lower budgets can get professional marketing and communications solutions. The Alliance Labs apprentices, called residents, get to work on professional projects alongside the pros, using them to answer questions, catch mistakes and act as mentors as they grow their career.

Residents help by putting together WordPress environments, editing pages and putting together wireframes, while the senior talent works on higher-level tasks like architecture and art direction behind websites.

Schickedanz said he developed the idea after realizing the gaps that existed both in the training pipeline and the marketing communications industry. He had been working with i.c.stars, the project-based learning program for low-income adults. While the model provided valuable training, graduates still often needed help to land their first jobs in the industry.

The Alliance Labs helps to continue their training with on-the-job experience. About three times each year, around five residents are selected from i.c.stars. Those residents take two classes per week for four months, building up skills and taking on client work along the way. 

While the residents are drawn from i.c.stars grads for now, Schickedanz says he may open it up to other potential apprentices in the future. 

Graduates of the program have gone on to take on their own design work for clients independently, further study design in master's programs and even opened their own business.

And with tech companies looking for applicants with diverse backgrounds and on-the-job experience, future grads should be well-positioned for the wealth of marketing positions available in Chicago.

Image via The Alliance Labs

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