Advice for Employers and Recruiters

How to train your existing employees in applied technology skills

Libby Rothberg AvatarLibby Rothberg
June 21, 2018

Any employer recruiting for tech talent will likely have their own take on what the tech skills gap looks like at their organization, but closing the gap is essential. Alexandra Levit, Chairwoman of Career Advisory Board, workforce consultant and author of several career-related books, says it’s important not just to identify tech skills, but to also take very concrete steps to train your existing employees in applied technology skills. That might be through internal coursework, bringing in a consultant or having employees do self-study. Alexander spoke at SHRM 2018, presenting “The tech skills gap is more complicated than you thought, but closing it is within your reach.” We interviewed her to dive deeper into what employers need to understand about the complexities of the tech skills gap and how they can close it at their own organizations.

The tech skills gap affects your whole company, not just programmers

The tech skills gap is the lack of potential candidates with both hard tech skills and applied technology skills. Programming or security information management are examples of hard tech skills. Levit says that in order to pursue a career using these skills, someone traditionally would need a computer science degree from an accredited university. Whereas, someone who has applied tech skills understands not the programming itself, but how their company uses it.

Someone with applied tech skills would understand that particular software programs are useful in achieving business outcomes. They would know that data analytics help measure success. They would also know their organization’s existing resources and how they are integrated.

Increasingly, every employee needs applied tech skills. Whether in customer service or in human resources, Levit states, “Technology pervades all areas of the business.”

The importance of closing the tech skills gap

Closing the technology skills gap is essential. It’s important not to just identify tech skills in your recruits, but to also train your existing employees in applied technology skills. There are many ways Levit offers: bring in a consultant, have internal coursework, or even have your employees self-study.

Any skills gap needs to be addressed and your employees need to be continually trained. Levit uses social media as an example as to why this training must be continuous. She explains, “A lot of companies said to themselves five years ago, ‘wow’, we better train everybody on social media and how they should use it. Now they have to redo that training because it’s completely different than it was five years ago.”

This is true for all kinds of technology. As technology advances, you have to keep focusing on it. Make sure that everybody understands what resources are available and how they should use those resources to do their jobs.

College Recruiter’s founder, Steven Rothberg, is a member of the Career Advisory Board, a think tank sponsored by DeVry University. According to the CAB’s 2018 Job Preparedness Indicator Survey: Training existing employees in applied technology skills is a major challenge for HR executives and managers alike, in part because current professionals did not receive this type of instruction via traditional education paths. It’s also not something that can be done overnight. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, because technology is evolving more quickly than in the past, much of applied technology skill acquisition will be spread out over an employee’s lifetime. Many of the respondents to the CAB survey understood this, and are ensuring that their workforces continuously train and retrain on applied technology skills through the development of internal courses (40 percent), internal trainings (38 percent), tuition reimbursement (35 percent), and external trainings (31 percent).

There are a lot of programs now that make it possible to extend your applied technology skills. They allow you to create databases or applications without knowing how to code necessarily.

Levit speaks to how different this is from even just 10 or 20 years ago. “You would need to know HTML to build a website. Now there are online tools where you don’t need to know HTML, you just type into a form and you can create a website,” she says.

Employers want grads of coding bootcamps, but not for the job you’d think

Levit warns, “You have to be skeptical of anything that promises a fantastic result with relatively little effort.” Bootcamps allow candidates to take steps towards the development of marketable skill sets.

Right now, more than ever, coding bootcamps are extremely useful. There is a huge need in every industry for coders and people with tech skills. These bootcamps will lead to more people entering into this field.

Levit does point out however, “One weekend bootcamp won’t give a candidate enough experience to be successful in a career. Although, it will be a good kickstart towards an entry point.”

According to Levit, no one can take on a full-time computer programming job based solely on a short bootcamp. Although, it should impress you if that same person continues on to get a certification in a particular programming language.

As an example, an English major goes to a coding bootcamp and adds it as a micro-credential to their resume. It wouldn’t make them employable as a programmer, but would impress employers because they now have applied tech kills.

Someone with applied tech skills has the ability to use data and devices to make better business decisions and do their job more efficiently. “These candidates wouldn’t be doing the programming themselves,” Levit makes clear, “But they’d understand how to use existing software systems or even new technologies to help your company move forward.”

You might see IT candidates put down that they have a certification in c++ on their resume. That is clear to both them and you what that means. Whereas, other types of candidates might put down that they have applied tech skills. It is important, especially in entry-level recruitment, to draw out from the candidate what that means.

Effectively grow your tech talent pipeline by collaborating with schools

Some employers have created nonprofits that reach students, as young as elementary school children, to help prepare them in the tech skills they’ll need in the future. Levit for the past 10 years has been advocating for employers to go out and create your own pipeline for the skills that you specifically need.

The FBI, for example, needed cybersecurity people and had nowhere to get them because schools weren’t training people in cybersecurity. They did not want to outsource because it’d be too dangerous to outsource cybersecurity. “The FBI helped to create a curriculum that taught students the skills necessary so that they could get directly sent into the FBI as cybersecurity experts,” Levit explains.

Around 10 years ago collaboration between employers and schools shifted from just focusing on college seniors to focusing on college freshmen. The Internet allows companies to communicate with even younger students today. Levit claims, “It is not unusual for a student in junior high school to already be in contact with companies.”

These students might have attended programs and have companies helping them with their educational decisions, even with the decision of where to go to college. Go out, create, and sustain relationships with these students. It does your company no good to go into these schools and create programs without branding your company. If students don’t know that it’s your company that is teaching them these skills, that won’t benefit you. Make sure they know who is helping them, and you’ll be sure to expand your pipeline.


Tighter immigration policies will affect the number of international workers

“Err on the side of caution when outsourcing tech skills,” Levit warns. There will most likely be language barriers and other costs.

The number of workers physically coming to the United States is decreasing as immigration policies tighten. Yet the number virtually will not be reduced. In fact, in recent years, accessing international workers virtually has become easier.

Embrace the gig economy and maintain loyalty among tech employees  

Many tech roles are notorious for their short tenure. Levit goes on to explain how to increase the loyalty of employees to your company, even with this drawback. She emphasizes the need to include contract workers in the company’s culture.

Levit says, “That’s where I see a lot of the problems, organizations that focus on culture for full timers, while the gig workers are treated as second class citizens.”

There are both logistical and legal reasons to include gig workers in your culture. The employee experience needs to be consistent across the organization. “You can’t bring in any contract worker to do the job, the IRS has rules about this,” Levit points out.

If you don’t embrace these large numbers of contract workers, they are going to form their own culture that most likely won’t adhere to yours. Employees who do not feel included in the culture will not be able to share your culture with customers. They won’t talk up your brand if they feel they are not included. This means other contract workers won’t want to work for you. Levit claims, “It is going to come back and bite you if you don’t include them.”

Embracing gig workers is especially important for employers that are struggling to fill open positions. If you see a tech skills gap at your company, fill the open positions with qualified technical gig employees. Work with those who want to become full time, but don’t forget about those who don’t. Involve them in your company’s community. Levit encourages, “Keep them as part of the culture because some of them might become full-time employees. Many of them will never have that role and that’s okay, not everyone wants to be full time.”

They’re not second class citizens just because they don’t want to be full-time employees. Contract workers aren’t going away. In fact, more full-timers are transitioning into contract work. We need to start thinking about them a little bit differently.

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