Guest Column | January 6, 2023

Can't Find Sales And Engineering Talent? Start Earlier With A University Sales/Tech Apprenticeship

By Dr. Richard L. Chambers, America’s Return Inc.

If your team could raise its cold-call appointment-setting rate from 2% up to 25%, would you be interested?

Datto’s annual surveys repeatedly show two key frustrations that keep solutions provider owners up at night: sales growth and finding the people to achieve that growth. With unfilled tech jobs growing in number to nearly four million – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – MSPs and VARs require a new cure.

Poaching Sales Engineers from the competition has not worked; it is an expensive investment risk for a human resource whose loyalty is on the open market. Recruiting through help wanted ads with piles of resumes is a time sink that evokes images of needles in a haystack. Traditional interviews at a new-grad career fair often find smart people who are clueless about sales or the working world.

The new way to find what you want is a university sales/tech apprenticeship, a blend of the two hottest trends in building the next generation of technology talent. Let us look at the rise of the technology apprenticeship and the booming growth of colleges granting bachelor’s degrees in Professional Sales. We will examine a mix of the two, an apprenticeship with college students well before they graduate – not just a casual internship -- whose curriculum of sales and engineering coursework is combined with paid, part-time work on projects under your company’s mentorship.

Apprenticeships – Half Of The Solution

The tech industry is reimagining a centuries-old approach to transferring knowledge and skill: apprenticeship. The White House recently championed a push for standardization and certification of cybersecurity apprenticeships. The computing industry’s leading association, CompTIA, is in the vanguard of that drive. Amy Kardel, SVP of Strategic Workforce Relationships at CompTIA notes, “Some things are best learned by doing, and IT and cyber security are among them. An apprenticeship is a paid, work-based learning opportunity to gain hands-on experience and important professional mentoring. CompTIA certifications align with the pathways, so it was natural for us to create national guidelines standards for these occupations.”

While an apprenticeship with a pure tech focus will help with training programmers, security analysts, and other skilled engineering roles, there remains the need for customer-facing business development staff and pre-sales engineers to help grow the business.

Professional Sales Bachelor’s Degree Programs – The Other Half Of The Solution

Hiring recent college graduates is a traditional core of many business’s strategies. But technology companies are only recently wising up to the dramatic growth of degree programs offering training in Professional Sales. The Sales Education Foundation (SEF), the premier clearinghouse for the field, now lists over 200 schools offering programs with majors, minors, certificates, or concentrations in Professional Sales, up from 27 just sixteen years ago. What unites them, according to Ms. Marty Holmes, SEF Executive Director, is the belief that “sales is an art and a science; it can be taught in a way that elevates the profession.” Recruiting graduates from these programs allows employers significant benefits. SEF’s statistics show that salespeople who have formal training before the job ramp up 50% faster with 30% less turnover. However, my findings are that you can beat both of those measures with a novel mix of the apprenticeship model and formal college sales training.

The University Sales/Tech Apprenticeship

The distinction between a college-based apprenticeship and one conducted outside of a college is clear. However, the labels for apprenticeship vs. internship within a university setting require some elaboration because some very innovative university apprenticeship programs stick with the traditional internship name.

What Is A University Sales/Tech Apprenticeship And How Does It Differ From An Internship?

  • A paid part-time job from an employer having continuous engagement for a year or more with an aim of full-time employment with the sponsor upon graduation; an internship typically provides only a short-term, often unpaid, gig considered a trial.
  • Formal training and mentorship. Academic-credit courses in Sales and Engineering are supplemented in an apprenticeship by employer training, mentoring, and practical challenging work, while short internships are typically only introductory.
  • A certificate or degree. In addition to a bachelor’s degree from college, employers provide specialized certifications from technology vendors and professional organizations.

While people of any age can successfully be trained to join the next generation of cybersecurity experts, my focus here is the current college cohort: Gen Z. Several factors favor these twenty-somethings candidacy as apprentices. Dr. Andrew Loring, a Texas A&M University expert in engaging Gen Z in the workplace, observes, “These students saw their parents lose jobs in The Great Recession and became risk averse about their careers. Knowing what’s expected of them and getting mentoring are seen by them as keys to success in getting jobs.”  Current students also face very steep tuition debt which tightens their focus on a practical education. Further, most have never known a time without the internet, gaming, social media, mobile devices, and IPO-instant millionaires. So, pursuing a technology track has an obvious appeal for them. However, what has changed for their generation is the dramatic expansion of Professional Sales undergraduate programs. Students who choose this sales preparation combined with technology studies are the ones I place my bet on for your sales engineering talent pool. For you to beat your competition in recruiting from this group, get in early with an apprenticeship to gain loyalty and build your bench.

How Do You Make A University Apprenticeship Work For Your Company?

Discover the schools in your region that offer Sales programs. Download the SEF list of top colleges with professional sales programs. The more robust of these listed programs come from members of the University Sales Center Alliance (USCA), whose members actively participate in competitions with other schools. Many engage business partners in shaping hands-on practicum coursework, built around a sponsoring company like yours.

Get acquainted with the school’s listed staff. They will engage you in the transactional programs the schools offer: career fairs, summer internships, sales competition sponsorships, externships (a day in the life of your company), boot camps for job searchers, and networking events. Expand your introductions to departments or programs such as Engineering, Computer Science, Business, Entrepreneurship, and Marketing, where professors may refer students to you. Refer to my earlier MSP/VAR Insights article, Finding Keepers: How to find, build and keep top sales reps, to help design your recruiting process to fit the interests of the students. The schools’ programs rely in part on corporate sponsorships, but your time commitment is more valued than your money. Texas A&M’s Professor Loring, a USCA officer, notes that your participation in the school’s transactional events is evidence of the staying power required for strategic partnerships that more easily lead to apprenticeships.

Baroan Technologies of Wayne, NJ provides an example of how guidance from the university staff can go beyond identifying candidates, to refining the business model. The MSP became engaged with William Paterson University (WPU) through a 2-year corporate partnership that grew out of successful career fair and intern experiences. The faculty became aware of Baroan’s recruiting interest and proposed an apprenticeship sponsorship. Two hired BDRs became team leaders for other students in a Business Practicum led by several professors, built around Baroan’s marketing plan. Additionally, the company became the focus of a role-play competition among sixteen Professional Sales college teams from around the country. President Guy Baroan, a WPU alum, says “In the process of creating the apprenticeship program and working with the WPU professors we discovered new ideas that helped sharpen our business model. It was a win/win: the students were introduced to new concepts of Digital Transformation and how to sell intangible consulting services; and in seeing how the students handled the role-playing we found opportunities to improve our message.”  The result of that effort led to a jump in converting introductory calls into appointments: from 2% to 25%.

Design an apprenticeship that fits your workflow and the student’s goals. Once you are familiar with the university programs and staff, create a path that will attract students who want what you deliver. You are not Google or Amazon; what makes you special? The same appeal for retaining your full-time staff applies to attracting an apprentice. Think of the professional desired outcome for a student 5-10 years later in their career, and structure the experiences to help them get there. Consider the intangible benefits of their work experience with you: meaningful impact on society; confidence with business leaders; working with customers in verticals of particular interest; successful role models to guide their development, etc.

Exclusive Networks, the largest global distributor of cybersecurity vendor, Fortinet, sought engineer-track apprentices at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). The school’s Sales Minor degree and Entrepreneurship programs added an attraction. The key was renting on-campus tech center office space to simulate workplace experience. Exclusive has hired more than a dozen student Associates for paid long-term part-time work in roles that fit the students’ passions. Many were already on a path of broad computer science knowledge, and their training has expanded to gain certifications in multiple network security vendor lines. The Associates are also engaged in our S.A.L.E.S. certification sessions in addition to Professional Sales coursework. Managers mentor these Associates in areas such as business planning with solutions providers, conducting cybersecurity product demonstrations, and promoting services sales. The trained Associates then extend the reach of the team. “The long-term goal of a pipeline for future Sales Engineers is on track,” says Brian Vincik, Exclusive’s Senior Vice President, North America (and Cal Poly alum).

We have stressed the university sale/tech apprenticeship as an approach to finding and building your bench. This discipline also provides the benefit of helping to keep these recruits. Business owners seeking to grow their Sales and Engineering staff sometimes express the frustration of paying for expensive certification training, only to lose an employee who becomes more marketable after the investment. While the apprenticeship programs require investments of time and money, there is a lower cost and risk. Unlike with a recruit from a general job search, the apprentice’s mentor will have had a year or two of personal evidence of the employee’s competence and loyalty prior to full-time engagement. Much of the cost of the student’s education has been externalized to the college, the payroll toll is significantly lower prior to graduation, and should it become mutually clear that a different direction is better, the student and the mentor have time to part amicably. Further, if you have aligned the apprenticeship with delivering desired career goals, you will be in a better position when competing job offers tempt the apprentice upon graduation. In effect, the better you equip your people to leave, the longer they stick around, because few competitors will ever provide that nurturance.

About The Author

Richard L. Chambers, Ph.D., President of America’s Return Inc., was an apprentice in the largest small business consulting company in the nation. He applied his academic psycholinguistics research to develop The S.A.L.E.S. System, a technology sales development program helping OEMs, ISVs, distributors, VARs, and MSPs sell solutions with higher profit in less time. Over 10,000 graduates in 30 years have helped generate over $4 billion in net new business. Reach out to as a sounding board for your planning.