QEMS facility

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina: Trailblazers in IT Apprenticeship

 
  James E. Taylor, Ph.D.
 

James E. Taylor, Ph.D., entry-level program manager and senior training analyst with BlueCross Information Systems Training

   

For over 20 years, BlueCross® BlueShield® of South Carolina (BlueCross) has cultivated top-tier information technology talent through its own company-designed training program. Designated the Information Systems Entry Level Training Program (ELTP), it was created to continually maintain a robust talent pipeline for mainframe programming and other information technology roles. In 2009, BlueCross worked with Apprenticeship Carolina™ to transform ELTP into the largest federally recognized information technology (IT) apprenticeship program in the country.

Today, ELTP offers four defined tracks that develop entry-level programmers and technicians for long-term IT careers at BlueCross. James E. Taylor, Ph.D., entry-level program manager and senior training analyst with BlueCross Information Systems Training, talks with EDGE about the continued importance of ELTP and apprenticeship to hiring, training and retaining the company’s highly-skilled workforce.

EDGE: How did the Entry Level Training Program (ELTP) get its start?

JT: The initial ELTP was in 1997. At that time, universities had stopped teaching Cobol to the level that we required. We weren’t getting enough new people with the skills we needed, so we decided to teach them ourselves.

The formalized apprenticeship agreement, begun in 2009, was for 42- and 48-month apprenticeship programs in IT. At that time, when people thought of apprenticeships, they thought of fields like contracting and plumbing. We were one of the only companies looking at apprenticeships for the IT or technical fields.

Over the years, ELTP has become an integral part of our hiring process. For several positions, we hire people into the entry-level program versus hiring them off the street or based solely on their resume as a full-time employee.

EDGE: How did Apprenticeship Carolina assist you with starting your apprenticeship program?

JT: Apprenticeship Carolina helped us set up the initial registered apprenticeship program and determine the number of training hours and floor hours we needed. In addition, they helped us understand US Department of Labor guidelines so that our apprenticeship program would be legitimately registered by the government.

Since then, any time there’s been a major change in our program, we go back to Apprenticeship Carolina and say, “Here’s what we’ve done. Does that make a difference in how our paperwork needs to look with the Department of Labor? Does this still work with our original agreement?”

EDGE: How is your ELTP program structured?

JT: There are four defined tracks, starting with the ELTP Host Mainframe/COBOL track, which is 16 weeks. The Non-Host/Java and JavaScript track is 17 weeks and focuses on foundational application development. Students learn Java basics as well as more complex development where they’re creating programs and doing integrated projects. The Infrastructure and System Support tracks run in tandem and are 20 and 21 weeks, respectively. Their focus is on customer service, troubleshooting, security and developing an understanding of our organization from a technology perspective.

Once trainees finish ELTP training, they work in many different areas of the company to complete their on-the-job training as full-time employees.

At the end of the track, apprentices earn a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor in Computer Programming or Network Infrastructure.

EDGE: How many people have been trained by ELTP?

JT: Since 1997, 536 people have gone through the ELTP program. As of 2020, over half of those are still with us and some have retired with us, so we have a very high retention rate after 22 years and 30 iterations of ELTP.

 
 
   
  2019 ELTP graduating class
 

2019 ELTP graduating class, also known as ELTP 30

   
  Mentorship is introduced to apprentices during the first week of class
 

Mentorship is introduced to apprentices during the first week of class

   


EDGE: How important is mentorship to the apprenticeship program?

JT: We have a journeyman’s trade model, where participants progress from student to apprentice to journeyman to master as they go through their careers. They’re all expected to teach those below and learn from those above them. In essence, the master teaches the journeyman, the journeyman teaches the apprentice, and the apprentice teaches the student. The first week the class is together, we introduce this development model as part of our belief system as an organization. We emphasize it by having a meet-and-greet with managers, directors and mentors to show its importance to our culture.

We build mentorship and networking into the program from the beginning, and it grows organically from that point. The instructors who act as the leading influencers for the tracks help guide students along the way. They’re the primary points of contact for those students, and those relationships help solidify the cultural impact we are trying to achieve.

Once trainees get out on the floor and start doing their assigned jobs, we have an official mentorship component where mentors work with them. This strategy provides trainees with a firm foundation for both immediate and long-term success in BlueCross Information Systems.

EDGE: How do you determine where employees will be assigned once they complete the apprenticeship program?

JT: Though trainees come in as a group, they get dispersed across the organization because IT touches every employee and almost every system. In this way, employees connect with others across all areas of the network.

There’s a lasting camaraderie among the people who go through the program together, however, and we like that. ELTP peers from years past still identify themselves by saying, “I’m ELTP 14” or “I’m ELTP 20.” This year is the 30th ELTP, so down the road, this group will refer to themselves as “ELTP 30.”

EDGE: Is ELTP a good starting place for employees who want opportunities for continuous development throughout their careers?

JT: Absolutely. Research says that today’s college graduates move from job to job until they find what they like. We give them that opportunity within BlueCross. Initially, of course, we want them to stay in the job we hired them for, but we also let them know that they own their career and can try something new. For example, a programmer who is interested in a system analyst-type position can explore that as an option. People have moved from ELTP into director and management positions throughout the organization, so there’s great opportunity for growth along the way.

EDGE: What are some of the positive aspects of having an apprenticeship program at BlueCross for the employer? How about for the employee?

JT: As the employer, we get to instill our values in talent throughout the training. The required course “Connecting You to Blue” helps participants understand our culture, our structure and our beliefs as an organization. Additionally, leaders within the organization speak about their jobs, what BlueCross means to them personally, and how apprentices can be successful. They also address how we want to progress as an organization and what we’re striving for from a technical perspective.

For the employees, they get to see a strong organization with the opportunity for longevity and career options. They see this as a place where they can stay and grow for a long time.

EDGE: How do you recruit people into ELTP?

JT: Our targeted recruitment efforts start with university career fairs, which generate a lot of positive word-of-mouth. ELTP students also tell their friends back at college about it, and those students send their resumes to our recruiter too. We end up with hundreds of applicants for an ELTP class of approximately 20.

Because of that, we can select the best of the best when it comes to who we want. And we want people who have an interest and passion for what they’ll be doing — not just because they have a degree or interview well.

Those selected for the program understand that we use ELTP to fill the positions of people who are retiring or moving into mid-level jobs. ELTP is the pipeline that keeps the flow of talent going, and over the years, it’s worked very well.

EDGE: How has the SC Apprenticeship Initiative (SCAI) grant helped your organization?

JT: The SCAI grant and other SC Technical College System grants have helped us watch our bottom line. By covering specific training components, the SCAI grant helps ensure that our employees are highly qualified for their positions.

EDGE: What do you personally like most about the apprenticeship program?

JT: My career, which includes 20 years in the military, has been focused on developing people. The ELTP program allows me to work with new employees as well as management and senior leaders of the organization. Honestly, I have taken this opportunity to a level that I didn’t realize I could.

EDGE: If another South Carolina company was considering starting an apprenticeship, what words of advice would you give them?

JT: Talk to Apprenticeship Carolina. Learn about apprenticeships, their requirements and some of the other industry-focused programs in your area. The idea of creating an apprenticeship from ground zero can be daunting, so it’s good to know that Apprenticeship Carolina can help with the details from start to finish.

I would also suggest that companies start small like we did with Cobol training back in 1997. As you see the value of apprenticeship grow over time, you can expand the model to other areas of your organization. Because the apprenticeship program should mirror what you need and are trying to achieve, the people in it should match who you want for your organizational culture. It’s a very personal thing for each organization.

EDGE: Is starting an apprenticeship program like this worth the investment?

JT: Apprenticeship is definitely worth the investment! I point to the 536 people trained over the past 22 years. Of those, over half are still with us. That is an average tenure of 11 years, even with the inclusion of the 26 who started in May and have only been here a few months. So yes, I’d say the returns are more than worth the investment!


ELTP History & Overview

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Information Systems (I/S) uses the Entry Level Training Program (ELTP) to create a strong talent pipeline of specialized technicians for mainframe programming and other information technology roles. This is accomplished through targeted college recruiting efforts, intensive training on technologies that in some cases are no longer offered in college curriculums, and a focus on preparing employees to be productive in the company’s culture and technical environments.

The Entry Level Programs were created in 1997 and have consistently provided top talent who have advanced their careers through the journeyman’s trade model to reach top-level technical and management roles. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) created a Federal Apprenticeship Program for information technology, and in 2009 I/S registered its program as part of that Federal Apprenticeship Program through Apprenticeship Carolina. The program is now recognized nationally by USDOL as one of the largest IT apprenticeships in the United States.

Program Tracks:
• Application Development Host (Mainframe Cobol Development) (Started in 1997)
• Application Development Non-Host – Java/Distributed Computing Development (Started in 2012)
• Network Operations – Infrastructure/ICT (Started in 2006)
• Systems Support (Started in 2007)

About BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Headquartered in Columbia, South Carolina, and operating for more than 70 years, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina is an independent licensee of the BlueCross and BlueShield Association. The only South Carolina-based and operated health insurance carrier, BlueCross comprises more than 20 companies involved in health insurance services, the U.S. Department of Defense health program and Medicare contracts, other insurance and employee benefits services and a philanthropic foundation that funds programs to improve health care and access to health care for South Carolinians.

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