Selecting Apprentices: An Inside Scoop on What We Evaluate and Why
Differentiating candidates for an entry-level position is difficult. Here are the top 5 things we look for when we process applicants to our apprenticeship program.
Five years ago, we launched an apprenticeship program. It’s been a smashing success. We’ve had 31 apprentices participate, and alumni now work at companies ranging from start-ups to tech giants, including digital agencies, and of course, Viget. We’ve learned a lot from running the program, and with each cohort we iterate and learn a little more. We continue to enjoy welcoming and mentoring participants. In fact, we are once again accepting applicants to join us for a few months of intense learning and growth this fall.
As applications stream in, we roll up our sleeves and steel ourselves: it’s intense! Our pool for this fall will likely be 350-500 candidates for 7 spots. The biggest lift of running a program like this is the behind-the-scenes logistics of reviewing applicants. On the one hand, it’s inspiring. We hear from hundreds of people who are incredibly eager for the chance to work hard and stretch beyond their comfort zone. On the other hand, it's overwhelming. How can we reasonably select one UX Strategist Apprentice, for example, from dozens (or hundreds) of hopefuls? Most of them are unsurprisingly lacking in experience (they should be – it’s an apprenticeship!) and the selection process is daunting.
In this article, I’ll share what we look for in applicants. I want to help prospective candidates self-assess – the program isn’t for everyone – and put their best foot forward if they decide to apply. I also hope to inspire other companies to set up an apprenticeship of their own. There is so much good that can come from doing so. Mentorship programs are good for the industry, good for the apprentices, and good for the mentors. Even the recruiters who are scrambling to manage the applicant pipeline will benefit from the chance to hone their skills during a high-volume push.
Here are the top 5 things we look for in applicants, why these things are important, and how we try to assess these traits.
1. Qualities of a strong mentee: proactive, driven, curious, open to feedback, able to ask for help.
- Why? The best apprentices are active in creating their growth. They take risks for the sake of learning. They speak up, solicit criticism, integrate feedback, and quickly build new skills. A lot of high-achieving people aren’t good at these things – this isn’t just about being smart or willing to work hard.
- How? We look for a track record of taking initiative or making things happen that weren’t a given. During interviews, we listen for humility but also the confidence to handle critical feedback. We look for evidence that the candidate will see themselves as the driving force in their success.
2. A demonstrated passion for one of our disciplines.
Why? Passion matters because we want our Advisors to have the experience of mentoring someone who is deeply invested, excited to learn, and driven to make the most of the experience. That kind of energy is contagious!
How? Passion doesn’t mean jumping up and down, shouting. It can be communicated in subtle, nuanced ways. We look for a familiarity beyond the surface level. We register the tone, depth, and breadth of applicants' interest.
3. Clearly established interest in a career path in tech (ideally client services).
Why? We want to focus on applicants who know they want to work in tech long term, who love making cool stuff for the web, and who are attracted to the idea of client services. In the near term, this alignment means apprentices will appreciate the experience we're able to offer them and actively put it into practice in their careers. In the long term, it means we’ll have an alumni network, spread across the country, that we can lean on and learn from for decades.
How? Most applicants talk about wanting to get into tech because it’s a growing field and they’re attracted to innovation or creativity. We look for more than that. Have you joined a tech industry Slack community? Gone to a meetup? Do you follow people in the field? Can you explain what makes client work interesting to you? Can you identify what skills you’re missing and how you’ll build them?
4. Communication, collaboration, and time-management skills.
Why? We put a premium on being client-ready because anyone at Viget could find themselves presenting to a client or summarizing their thoughts in writing. No matter their seniority or role, everyone needs to demonstrate company-wide “shared competencies,” which include things like working within constraints, meeting deadlines, communicating clearly, and building positive relationships with coworkers and clients.
How? Beginning with the initial application form, some candidates are able to demonstrate clear, well-organized writing. Throughout the evaluation process we look for evidence of collaboration and rapport-building skills. Some of our homework assignments factor in time management, and we also look to prior job experience for a track record of managing time well.
5. Baseline knowledge and skills in their discipline.
Why? We’re creating a bridge between the basic, foundational knowledge of a discipline and a full-time, high-stakes job. We need apprentices to already have some fundamentals in place. We don’t believe there’s one “right way” to acquire those fundamentals – it could be through a degree program, training program, bootcamp, or significant self-study. We focus on applicants who already know a lot and who will benefit from the chance to put concepts into practice on projects. A sports analogy might be that you need to know the rules of the game and have ball-handling skills; we’ll teach you how to run plays and be part of a team.
How? When they apply, candidates list what they’ve done so far to learn the basics. During interviews, we dig into details about their knowledge and try to find the edges of what they know.
Those are the top 5 things, but that’s not all we look for. There are sometimes location considerations at play. For example, if two candidates were both strong and one could meet their Advisor in person occasionally at one of our offices, that might get factored into our final decision. We also consider the concept of “mutual impact,” factoring in if a candidate brings a perspective or experience that we’re lacking at Viget, or if working at Viget would be an unprecedented opportunity for the candidate. This kind of novel impact isn’t prioritized over the five things listed above, but it can help us focus on a subset of people within a pool of qualified applicants.
A final inside scoop to keep in mind if you’re thinking about applying is timing. We hear from a lot of candidates who have no red flags on items 1-5 and apply with a ton of enthusiasm. But a common barrier from our perspective is that the timing isn’t quite right. The program works best when it aligns with a fairly narrow window of time in a person’s professional journey – a little more experience, and they’d be overqualified; too little experience and they’ll be overwhelmed. It’s hard to turn away someone who shows a ton of promise but isn’t in that window of time. Experience has shown us, however, that bringing an apprentice on board who isn’t ready for the fast-paced mentorship we’re able to provide will be frustrating for all parties.
The Viget apprenticeship is a robust program that includes direct mentorship, real-world client experience, multidisciplinary training, and career planning. Apprentices are paid, paired with a dedicated Advisor, and folded into as much of Viget’s business activity as possible. We hold ourselves to high standards as we solve complex problems, collaborate within cross-functional teams, and deliver high-quality work to our clients. We default to trust, believe in balance, push into discomfort as needed, and actively work to build an inclusive culture. We do all this because we want to build a better digital world, one client project at a time. If a culture of growth, mentorship, and excellence appeals to you, get in touch.