Modern-day digital marketers are expected to be expert in skills as varied as analytics, copywriting, sales, digital media, automation, and more. Unless they are able to invest serious money and years of education in getting degrees in each discipline, professionals need a faster, more effective way to close the skills gap and stay relevant in a changing market.

The Digital Creative Institute (DCI) is a 12-month digital marketing apprenticeship course based at Geekdom. The educational boot camp-style mentorship program pairs participants with companies to help recent college graduates gain the necessary digital marketing skills while providing local businesses in San Antonio and Austin with highly qualified talent.

DCI is an alternative to graduate school-level training for working professionals who want more education and access to a mentorship network.

DCI’s founder and CEO Brad Voeller saw the need to develop a program that helps locals acquire specialized digital marketing skills which then translate into to thriving careers.

“Students graduate college increasingly without the practical skills they need to land an entry-level job in digital marketing,” Voeller told the Rivard Report. “We’ve identified a talent gap in digital marketing, not just in Texas, but across the nation.

Apprentices and coaches included founder Brad Voeller (back left) work on time management practices that apply to real world marketing. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The transition from college to the first professional job in one’s career is so critical, it can influence a person’s career for years and years to come,” Voeller added. “Companies are looking for people with three to five years of experience plus all these digital marketing skills, and people just don’t come out of college with that kind of experience.”

Tuition runs $12,000 for the 12-month program. Students work full-time for a company, with the employer paying for a portion of the training. The remaining tuition is deducted from the apprentice’s salary.

The first cohort with six students ran from January to December 2016. Seven students are participating in the second program that started in August 2016, and a third one with seven students just started this past January. DCI’s goal is to have two cohorts per year.

“I went to the UK and looked at their apprentice model – it’s quite intentional,” Voeller said. “They’ve invested heavily at all levels – public, private sectors, and in education. One program, for example, has 6,000 apprentices and they are all in the digital space. I realized we don’t have anything remotely like that in this country. That was an eye opener for me.”

Students meet two to three times per week at Geekdom to learn from current digital marketing professionals in a workshop format and gain certifications in various areas such as Google Analytics, Google AdWords, and Facebook blueprint. Participants work on projects to learn concrete skills and complete needed digital marketing work for their employers.

The curriculum constantly evolves to meet the changing digital market and employers’ needs.

“To give one example of newly added curriculum, we are teaching marketing automation on platforms such as Hub-Spot and Pardot,” DCI Content Marketing Specialist Sarah Davis said. “Marketing automation is becoming more popular so employers need talent to be trained on different platforms.”

Davis interned with DCI her senior year and graduated from Trinity University with a degree in communications in May 2016. Since graduation, Davis works full time at DCI.

The 12-month apprenticeship also teaches students the “soft skills” needed to launch a career. Not only are they able to practice newly acquired skills, they also learn how to complete digital marketing work employers or partner company require. By graduation, apprentices have a portfolio of completed projects that is equivalent to three to five years of work experience.

With few college course offerings in digital marketing, DCI’s apprenticeship fills a crucial gap in job skills needed by digital marketing professionals.

“Graduates are having trouble launching their careers because they lack the digital skills to spread the [employer’s] message and engage with audiences,” Voeller explained. “What we are trying to do is close this gap as a career accelerator. We start to work with them to help them develop a portfolio so they can demonstrate their skills so from Day One they can provide that value as an employee in the digital marketing role.”

DCI program graduates are now working at local San Antonio companies as varied as Pear Analytics, Acemart Restaurant Supply, SocialPath Solutions, Snackdot, and Soccer Zone.

Christine Contreras is a current apprentice in the second cohort and works full time as a digital analyst at the Gray Digital Group.

“I graduated from college two years ago after studying advertising and PR and started working at a startup in digital marketing, but I realized I didn’t have the practical skills I needed, especially in digital,” Contreras said. “College courses typically focus on traditional approaches to marketing. I had about a year of experience but I didn’t have the full depth of experience across the digital marketing spectrum.

“Now that I’m at the halfway point, I have a larger perspective on client needs. Everything I’ve learned I’ve put to use at work and have given tremendous value to all of our clients. For example, getting a certification in Pardot automation opened my eyes to how much automation can improve clients’ digital marketing efforts.”

Contreras has a clear plan for her future. Before DCI, she was working on web development, but the apprenticeship allowed her to narrow her focus.

“It’s also about networking. I’ve met great people [at DCI] who’ve taught me what to look for, what coding should I be focusing on, what tools I should use, and what I should put in my portfolio,” she added.

Voeller recognizes that coaching and mentoring are as important as the digital skills.

“We’ve seen the amazing impact of coaching with executives, so we’re providing this for graduates to help with their transition to a career,” Voeller said. “We’re surrounding them with a community of practice with mentors who have day jobs at leading agencies, local companies such as Rackspace, or even a tech company in Austin. We reach out to partner with the best talent in the region to create that community of practice.”

As the traditional apprenticeship model expands from trade skills to those needed to excel in the digital space, DCI seeks to fill that need nationwide.

Future plans for DCI include expanding the digital marketing apprentice model to Austin, with the Austin DCI program launching Feb. 21.

“If we can have a sustainable, successful model both here and in Austin, we have a model that we can grow and scale across 50 different locations across the nation,” Voeller said. “After Austin, we’re looking to set up the next new program in the Fort Worth area.”

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.