Advice for Employers and Recruiters

Strategies to address the tech skills gap and plan your future workforce

Libby Rothberg AvatarLibby Rothberg
February 8, 2018


We wanted to know how employers are addressing the tech skills gap and learning to prepare their future workforce pipeline. We met with Parvathi Sivaraman and Maan Hamdan from Education Unbound, which was formed to build up STEAM in education. By supporting education, they also help reduce the expected tech skills gap and mitigate some of the negative impact automation will have on many traditional jobs.

Employers’ responsibility in preparing students for the workforce

The traditional path to enter the workforce has been to get an education and then apply to jobs. The problem is the growing disconnect between education and the workforce, which is not helping the tech skills gap. The gap between the amount of tech jobs available and the amount of people that can do those jobs is widening. “The pace at which job requirements are changing is so fast. Communicating that down to the school is just taking too long,” Sivaraman points out. In recent years, some big players in technology have realized that this model isn’t the most effective.

One way tech employers are working to fill their tech skills gap is by creating a nonprofit wing within their organization. This wing is in charge of outreach. They go into high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to educate students. They inform students of the kinds of skills their organization is looking for. This allows students to pick courses that will help them learn those required skills. Sivaraman says, “It’s almost working backwards. You figure out what job you want to do and then you pick your degree and courses. It’s really a paradigm shift.”

She points out an example. One corporation with a program like this is Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). TCS is a non-profit with an ‘Ignite My Future’ program to collaborate with schools. This outreach allows them to build awareness of their organization within many new communities.

Hamdan adds that “there is a need for a shift in the way we look at education.” Education in the past was structured around how the industries of yesterday operated. Education needs to become structured to promote the industry of tomorrow if there is any hope in reducing the tech skills gap.

How schools react to employers inserting their own interests

Sivaraman notes that public schools are notorious for staying in their little box. However, she has had conversations with school districts that seem very open to this new approach. The schools want to enable their students, principals, and administrators to have a vision for their kids’ futures. The schools want to bring STEAM programs into their classrooms. They want to collaborate with employers and find ways for them to engage with students, teachers, and parents.

Difference between white-collar apprenticeships and internships

Apprenticeships are an important part of this paradigm shift. According to Hamdan, apprenticeships are a means for people to engage in their world, and we don’t have enough. Internships simply support the current education system. That is, students go to school to learn a set of skills and then intern at an employer where they can see how their new skills are used in a professional environment. An apprenticeship is the opposite.

Also read: Can you really hire unpaid interns, with new rules issued by Department of Labor?

Apprenticeships are structured with a focus on work. The apprentice works for a employer, which in turn supports their education. They go to school to learn the specific skills they need for the job. Yesterday’s model of education driving business has become today’s model of business driving education.

Yesterday’s model of education driving business has become today’s model of business driving education.

More employers in the U.S. have begun investing in apprenticeship programs. Employers such as J.P. Morgan, Amazon, and IBM have started programs, but they’re still very small.

“The belief that every salaried job requires a college degree needs to be changed,” stresses Hamdan. He refers to a wave of new jobs he calls “new collar jobs”. They are not blue collar and they’re not white collar. A perfect example of a new collar job is in computer programming. Many of these jobs can be filled by people without a college degree, however, employers still face the lack of programs producing this talent.

Apprenticeships help employers on-board people that don’t necessarily have a degree but have a high level of interest. These opportunities used to be blue-collar jobs like mechanics and construction workers. Now, apprenticeships include more white collar jobs such as insurance, Human Resources, customer service, and computer programming. Some employers are offering salaries around $50,000 for three or four days of work per week. The days not spent working would be spent at college or another post-secondary institution. Work and school go hand in hand.

Another big difference between an apprenticeship and an internship is the time duration of the assignment. An internship typically lasts for some months, a summer or a semester. An apprenticeship, however, can can be as long as five years.

An apprenticeship offers hands-on training. Internships, however, are notorious for hiring interns who mostly watch but rarely get an opportunity to fully participate.

The training that apprentices receive is that which necessary to do the job they are hired for. The most important difference is that when the apprenticeship ends, the apprentice has a job with that organization. In fact, most employers will have the new apprentice sign that they will work there for a period after they finish the apprenticeship. The employer invests in their training because they want them to become employees.

To fill tech skills gap, employers must stop behavioral resistance

The idea that great talent can be found in less prestigious schools is not a new idea, and yet most large employers seem reluctant to change their university recruiting programs, continuing to prioritize elite schools and limited majors.

Employers have been recruiting a certain way that has worked for many years. So, why reinvent the wheel? Sivaraman emphasizes that a lot of untapped talent doesn’t go to the top schools. The amount of money one has simply does not correlate to your innovative or creative abilities.

Employers are realizing this. Many have now begun to explore non-traditional pathways of recruiting. However, the biggest challenge for a big corporation is to know how to go about doing things. According to Sivaraman, “they need some kind of a system.”

Related: Recruitment methods for non-traditional students

Some organizations have begun to reach into this untapped potential through community partners. At the grass roots level, these partners know who the promising students are and can point organizations in the right direction.

Another way has been through camps. An organization might invite 60 young students from low income elementary and middle schools to their facility to learn new skills. Those students learn that an organization like this exists in their area, and opportunities like this frequently spark an interest in students.

It is important to expose children at a young age to possible career paths that they might not see in their own community. Organizations have the opportunity to show needed role models to children–such as women mechanics, pilots, and other STEAM jobs. Sivaraman encourages employers to “show them what the job actually looks like, and allow them to ask questions.” Prepare children by sparking an interest in them at a young age. Have them see what these jobs look like, what’s expected, and what challenges you face.

People often assume that children are too young to understand complicated real world concepts. Children as young as ten or less, however, are aware that they will eventually have to do something to make money. Work used to imply going somewhere. Nowadays it is so much more common to work remotely. Kids know this and are aware of the flexibility some jobs offer. Sivaraman points out, “it is not a big leap for even young children to say ‘this looks like a job that I like. Now how do I work backwards from there?’”

Important things for leaders in talent acquisition to know

The old decision facing recruiters was between recruiting people who already made the investment in their education, and recruiting people who would need additional training. The choice for many employers now, however, is between training someone or not filling the job at all.

The choice for many employers now is between training someone or not filling the job at all.

Sivaraman warns CEOs that they “need to be aware of that and start taking action.”

Training an employee should be seen as an investment, rather than as a wasted expense. Not only an investment, but one with a return on that investment.

“I’m an example of this,” Hamdan remarked, “When I was in college, a construction company paid for my education. In lieu of that payment, I had to sign an agreement to go work for them after I graduated.” Hamdan shares how wonderful this opportunity was because without it, he wouldn’t have been able to afford his education. He worked for the agreed amount of time once he graduated. In the end, he got an education and the company got someone to succeed in the job. It was a win-win situation.

Employers can learn so many things from this kind of collaboration. While you build someone’s skills from the ground up, you learn new things from them. If you have the right feedback loops in place, you can tie that into your whole business strategy.

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