This spring, Michael Schutzler used only his hands to propel a prone paddle board through 78 miles of Puget Sound during 19 hours. The race, Seventy48, takes paddlers and rowers from Tacoma to Port Townsend. Kneeling on the board or lying on his belly, Schutzler battled waves, dense fog and stinging nettles to paddle all the way to the finish line. Mentally, it was one of the toughest things Schutzler had ever attempted.
“It was grueling,” Schutzler says. “It was harder than any tri or endurance event I’ve ever done.”
The grit, energy and mental stamina Schutzler pours into endurance sports can be seen in his desk job as well. During the past six years, he’s transformed the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) from a narrowly focused trade group into an influential and aggressive advocate for the Puget Sound region’s white-hot technology sector.
Since becoming chief executive officer of the WTIA in 2013, the startup veteran has grown the organization from an annual budget of $1.8 million to an estimated $23 million this year. He insists revenue could increase to $150 million in a few years. In the same time period, the association has grown from 11 to 45 staff members.
“Michael works tirelessly,” says Ed Lazowska, a member of the WTIA board and the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. “He understands how to build teams. He is a listener. He moves at start-up speed. And he’s willing to experiment.”
The WTIA’s growth and transformation has come primarily from the group’s health care and apprenticeship programs, both of which were developed to help local companies hire new talent. The benefits program now has 450 member companies that average 14 employees in size.
Schutzler created the apprenticeship program, called Apprenti, to combat the shortage of skilled technology workers. Apprenti trains individuals who haven’t obtained a traditional computer science education and places them with tech companies for a one-year paid registered apprenticeship. After the apprenticeship ends, the companies can opt to hire the trainees permanently. Apprenti now has 58 employers in 11 states enrolled in the program, including Amazon, Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase and Liberity Mutual, among others.
Schutzler came to the WTIA after selling his online language company, Livemocha, to Rosetta Stone for $8.5 million in 2013. He spent three months exploring the Northwest on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, traveling as far east as Montana.
During his sabbatical, a WTIA board member contacted him to ask for a contact from his LinkedIn account during their search for a new CEO. Though she hadn’t intended to recruit Schutzler, he became intrigued by the idea of where the WTIA needed to go.
“I said, ‘It’s a turnaround. You need a turnaround person,’” Schutzler recalls.
Though he had no experience whatsoever with nonprofits — he hadn’t even served on a board — or worked in the political arena, Schutzler chased the job. The WTIA was giving him a blank piece of paper to completely reinvent the organization.
Schutzler started by meeting with CEOs of tech companies big and small to find out what they needed. They emphasized the ongoing war for talent and told him they needed new ways to recruit qualified workers. With sectors ranging from fashion to beverage sales all looking for people with computer skills, the demand keeps growing.
“The industry produces jobs 10 times faster than the state can produce people to fill them,” Schutzler says. “We have a workforce problem.”
A recent LinkedIn Workforce Report ranked Seattle as the fifth-worst city in the nation for both skills gaps and shortages, defined as mismatches between skills employers need and skills workers have. In both instances, the gap exceeds more than a half-million workers.
Schutzler’s early attempts failed. He tried bringing smaller companies together to recruit on college campuses, since it can be difficult for them to compete with the spending power of larger corporations. He found, however, that even with the companies working together, they couldn’t spend three years grooming and wooing students in the way that a giant like Microsoft Corp. can.
In another experimental program, Schutzler launched a diversity initiative by recruiting a group of minority and women job candidates, stripping names from résumés, and then orchestrating a round of speed-dating-like job interviews. While the idea worked on a small scale, Schutzler couldn’t figure out an easy way to scale it to reach more companies and potential hires.
The WTIA did find success, however, in building and recruiting for a group health care plan. Smaller tech companies often struggle to offer benefit packages that enable them to compete with big companies. In response, the WTIA worked with health insurer Premera Blue Cross to create a benefits package specifically for the tech industry. The plan offered perks popular among educated tech employees, such as access to naturopathic medicine or Pilates and exercise classes.
“The little companies need to be attractive so they can poach people from the bigger companies,” Schutzler says.
WTIA now provides health care and 401(k) plans to 13,000 tech workers. By recruiting 450 companies to join the benefits network, WTIA was able to negotiate affordable rates.
WTIA's second major success, Apprenti, addresses the workforce shortage for big and small companies. Schutzler looked to both Europe, where tech companies regularly use the apprenticeship model to develop talent, and to traditional apprenticeship programs in trades such as plumbing and electrical work in the United States.
After obtaining a Department of Labor grant to launch the Apprenti program three years ago, the WTIA brought on six apprentices. By the end of this year, the program will have reached 700 apprentices in 14 markets. Their median salary prior to joining the program was $34,000, which jumps to $56,701 during the apprenticeship and $86,252 for those retained by companies post-apprenticeship.
Apprenti recruits people who have no technology experience or training. It looks for women and minorities, though anyone can apply, and recruits at community colleges, churches, community centers and among the unemployed. The program aims to build a more diverse workforce in a sector that is largely comprised of white men.
To weed out candidates who aren’t serious, the WTIA gives them study guides and then tests them for math aptitude, problem solving and communication skills. Phone and in-person interviews follow. Jason Johnson, director of global early career programs for Microsoft, has been involved with Apprenti on the company side. Johnson says Microsoft doesn’t look for technical skills when first meeting with candidates.
“We test them for their curiosity and their passion for technology,” Johnson says. “It’s about tenacity and grit.”
Once the apprentices are selected, they go through five months of full-time tech training, paid for by the WTIA. They then work for one year at a company as an apprentice, during which they must be paid at least 60% of market wage. So far, 80% of the apprentices remain with their companies after the first year.
“Their loyalty is epic,” Schutzler says. “They perceive the employer as the one who pulled them out.”
One of the first apprentices, Anthony Hoopes, worked as a barista in a coffee shop in the Central District and read coding books in his free time. Hoopes heard about Apprenti from a fellow coding hobbyist and decided to apply. He’d done everything from directing film photography to door-to-door telephone communication sales, but he had no experience in the technology field. He quickly recognized Apprenti as his chance for a new life.
“It relieved a lot of stress,” Hoopes says. “The training wasn’t something I could easily purchase on a barista salary.”
After the five-month coding boot camp, Hoopes joined Microsoft as an apprentice in software developing. Right away, his team members offered him a project to tackle, letting him showcase his new skills. His confidence grew and Hoopes accepted a full-time job with Microsoft following the apprenticeship. He had financial security for the first time in his life.
“Being a barista is paycheck to paycheck,” Hoopes says. “I remember a lot of soup in 2016. Things have changed tremendously.”
Hoopes is one of roughly 60 apprentices Microsoft has hired through the program. The first third of those started at the company in January 2017 and the second group started in August 2017. The third group is underway. Seventy percent of apprentices who have completed the program now work full time for the tech giant.
Johnson says Apprenti has shown Microsoft a new and innovative way to fill key positions while creating greater employee diversity.
“I think we are breaking down archetypes we had in the past where they had to have a certain degree,” Johnson says.
Though grants enabled the WTIA to launch Apprenti, the program is now self-sustaining, as employers pay the organization a recruiting fee. Schutzler predicts Apprenti will have the biggest impact on the local community of anything WTIA does because it benefits companies that struggle to fill open positions and the vast number of underemployed individuals who lack training.
“If we can retrain the workforce, that’s transformational,” Schutzler says.
Lazowska adds that Schutzler’s leadership extends well beyond just the WTIA.
“The tech industry and the region move forward together, and Michael really gets that,” Lazowska says. “I had no idea he would be half this good when we hired him.”