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Attracting, Retaining and Developing Talent
in a Tough Economy:
An Apprenticeship Approach

by Giselle LaFrance


In a time where most industries and companies are laying off, my firm, Atrion Networking Corporation, located in Rhode Island, is growing. The company has experienced a 54% growth rate since 2007, and in 2008 alone it welcomed over 40 new employees to its team. However, despite Atrion’s success, it has been consistently faced with one barrier – a dwindling talent pool.

In a 2007 study by the Rhode Island Tech Collective, over half of IT industry employers reported they are “inadequately” staffed. The expense of finding the right talent for a position can be additionally burdensome, costing a company not only approximately 90% of that position’s annual salary, but also a decline in its employee morale, business operations and in its abilities to address client needs. No matter the size, strength or focus of any organization, a hole in its talent resources is a hole in its operations and a tunnel for potential problems.

Recognizing these problems and the need for an innovative solution, Atrion decided it was time to take a different approach to attracting, retaining and developing the talent its service offerings and clients demand. People have always been Atrion’s number one priority. We would now take that philosophy and seek to invest in hiring the right people over the right skills. Spearheaded by the team of Chris Poe, director of technical operations, Michelle Pope, lifecycle support services director, Dave Raposa, service level manager, and Steve Malloy, talent developer, Atrion created an Apprenticeship Program model which would develop four entry-level new hires into proficient, cross-trained engineers within less than one year.

“Technical skills can be taught,” says Steve. “Client service and soft skills are much harder to teach. We’ve always found that people who are self-directed learners and who work their way up through Atrion tend to be much stronger. They tend to put more into and get more out of the company, they tend to be more dedicated and passionate, and they tend to stay longer. For us, those are reasons in themselves for the Apprenticeship Program.”

Finding the Right People for the Team

In a tough economy and with the Apprenticeship Program’s innovative concepts, Atrion received 75 applications for the program. Looking again for the right people over technical skills, Atrion required no IT experience from the applicants, who ranged from 10 years in the industry to none. Through resume and cover letter reviews, phone screenings and interviews, the 75 applicants were narrowed down to nine. The nine candidates were invited to participate in a full-day orientation-style interview process.

When the candidates arrived they sat around the conference table with the team of Steve, the facilitator, and Chris, Michelle and Dave, the panelists. Seeking to create a collaborative and comfortable environment, the panelists broke the ice in a roundtable discussion of their specific roles within Atrion and invited the candidates to ask questions. The candidates also introduced themselves before breaking off into three groups. The task of each group was to solve a selected number of problems within a given amount of time. This gave the team an opportunity to observe the candidates’ analytical and team working skills in real-time. The candidates learned something as well – as long as they remained in their isolated groups, it was impossible to answer the questions within the allotted time. All three smaller groups had to work together as one large group.

During a break for lunch, the team discussed among themselves their observations. Six of the nine candidates were selected to return to a second round of the interview – this time 30 minute one-on-one meetings with the panel. The panel began the interviews by asking the candidates for feedback about the morning’s events. They then gained insight into the candidates’ client relation and problem solving skills through a behavioral interviewing style. Upon completion of the six interviews, the panelists again shared their thoughts. In the end, they found all of the candidates to be well qualified, but they only had three positions to offer. The final decision was made based on team chemistry and collaboration skills.

“It was a tough decision,” said Michelle. “I know we would have been proud to welcome all nine of the candidates to our team – they were all strong. But, we only had three positions to offer and what it really boiled down to was their team dynamics. Atrion thrives on our ability to work together – with each other, with our vendors and with our clients – to get things done in the fastest, most efficient and most comprehensive manner possible. And that capability was, in the end, the deciding factor.”

The Program

“We have a very unique, ambitious and client-focused culture here at Atrion,” Michelle notes. “We started the Apprenticeship Program by first finding the right people for that culture. Now we will focus on growing their technical and client service skills.”

Over the course of the program, the new Apprentice Team will be able to perform installations in three of Atrion’s practice areas, provide pertinent solution engineering and provide outstanding client-focused service. To accomplish this, the apprentices must be passionate, willing to invest their time and energy and be eager to learn and collaborate – many of the characteristics Atrion values in its team. The apprentices will utilize a variety of web, video and text resources in their training. They will also utilize the Cisco Partner E-Learning program and have hands-on training experiences and field shadow opportunities. Two days a week, the apprentices will work in a reactive capacity with Dave in the Network Support Center taking client calls and directing them to the appropriate places. “The level of their success depends on them,” says Steve. “We are providing the apprentices with all of the tools, guidance and structure they need to succeed, but ultimately their dedication, commitment and willingness to think outside the ordinary will be the measure of their accomplishment.”

And they are off to a running start – already passing their Cisco CSE 4.0 exam and hitting the technologies with a fiery ambition. “I give a lot of credit to the apprentices. They have jumped in with no reservations,” exclaims Dave, “and I can’t wait to have them training with my team. The fire they have is contagious.”

“With the lack of affordable and experienced IT talent within the State of Rhode Island, Atrion has decided to create a program that would expand upon our highly successful internship program,” said Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion. “We are highly optimistic that this Apprenticeship Program will aid in expanding Atrion’s talent sets, strengthening our organizational capabilities and ensuring the highest level client satisfaction across all areas of our solution. As a company, Atrion’s committed investment in people will continue to lead us down a road of growth and accomplishment.”


The Author

Giselle LaFrance

Giselle LaFrance is the Communications Specialist for Atrion Networking Corporation as well as the Tech Collective, Rhode Island’s IT and Bioscience Industry Association. Giselle has helped to garner exposure for these industries and has published articles on business and academic collaboration and industry potential. Contact Giselle at or 401-736-6400 .

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Copyright 2009 by Giselle LaFrance. All rights reserved.

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