To compete for IT workers with firms in New York and throughout New England, Atrion Networking Corporation in Rhode Island identifies up-and-coming IT “rock stars” through an innovative and competitive apprentice program. By investing in the future of their employees, Atrion is creating a culture of quality.
Angel Gavidia was a Cisco Networking Academy student at Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) when a classmate told him about Atrion. He knew he wanted to do “something with Cisco,” but did not have a clear idea of his career trajectory.
“Students graduating from community colleges or technical schools often need a bridge from classroom learning to work experience,” said Patrick Halpin, talent recruiter at Atrion. “They have invested time and money in a technology education to build a successful career. But after graduation, they may find that a lack of experience makes it hard for them to get job interviews.”
Atrion launched its Apprentice Program in 2011 out of necessity. “We were on a steep growth curve,” said Patrick. “We needed to find talent fast.” Atrion realized that new graduates were an untapped source of top employees, but needed a way to find people with the perseverance and personality to thrive in an IT consulting environment.
“We look for a certain caliber of talent,” said Patrick. “They can think on their feet, put the customer at ease, and solve problems for them.” The Atrion Apprentice Program works with local universities and community colleges to identify promising Cisco Networking Academy students. A competitive interview process narrows the field to 10 candidates who are offered a full-time salary and benefits to learn the business. The 6-month, intensive training program prepares new hires to be outstanding engineers and committed employees.
“It’s like no other interview process you’ve gone through,” said Angel about applying to the Atrion Apprentice Program. Hundreds of students and recent graduates apply for just 10 slots each year. An initial telephone interview helps Atrion determine if a candidate will thrive and succeed in the environment. Next comes a technical challenge to complete. When Angel received his technical challenge, he did not know anything about the topic, but showed that he could apply himself, do the research, and succeed. After a final in-person interview, Angel was invited to an all-day elimination competition at the Atrion office.
The top 20 applicants work individually and as teams to complete challenges. Company executives and directors interview them and evaluate their work. “In one room, directors and executives berate you with questions,” says Angel. “It builds you up and sets you up for life. Though it was nerve wracking, I could do it. I made it to the program.” At the end of the day, 10 students are hired and put to work learning.
The apprentices spend 6 months in technology “bootcamps” run by a dedicated program manager as well as partners such as VMware. Senior engineers mentor the apprentices to help them develop the high level of customer service that distinguishes Atrion from its competitors. Apprentices are expected to study on their own to complete technical challenges, labs, and homework.
Atrion makes a big, up-front investment in less-experienced employees, because the return on investment is significant. “We are a talent accelerator,” said Patrick. “We put people to work who might struggle to find jobs with a good academic record but no work experience. It may take someone 10 years to get to the level it takes people to get to in 2 at Atrion. Our goal is for a long-term relationship.”
Within just 3 months, Angel had proven his skills and was offered a position on the support team. Customers began to ask specifically for Angel. He passed his Cisco CCNA certification exam and was promoted. “He’s one of the rock stars who go out and make us look good,” said Patrick.
Since the program began, Atrion’s staff has doubled from 125 to 250, with 40 new hires coming from the Apprentice Program. It was the first apprentice program recognized by the state of Rhode Island and gained the attention of the U.S. Labor Department. Angel was invited to represent the Cisco Networking Academy at the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative on a panel about transformative tools to create a skilled workforce.
Angel credits Atrion with helping him identify his strengths and rapidly advance in his career. He is now an associate engineer in the Atrion support center, and provides dedicated networking security support to a key customer. “This exceeded my expectations tenfold,” he said. “We’re a different breed of engineer at Atrion. We are people-persons. We build relationships before we build the network. I feel at home here.”