The Untapped Tech Talent Pool - A Good Deal for Everyone

With unemployment at an all-time low, employers are struggling to find and recruit qualified workers. For tech companies, the challenge is even greater. Demand is already high, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts continued growth across the computer and information technology sector. At the same time, nearly all tech employers require a four-year degree, even for entry-level positions, leading to an unsustainable labor shortage. That is why some tech companies are looking to an “analog” solution to address their labor shortage, one that’s been around forever: apprenticeships.

Employers in the tech industry have historically made a four-year degree a basic requirement for employment. The problem is, about 60 percent of the American workforce doesn’t have one. Mandating a college degree makes finding candidates more expensive and may not necessarily produce the best person for the job.

To find qualified workers in an increasingly competitive market, strategically-minded employers are radically rethinking their hiring practices and implementing new workforce programs, whether on-the-job training or full apprenticeship programs, to build the skills they need.

When employers replace a mandatory four-year degree with tailored on-the-job training, workers have additional paths to high-value jobs in the technology sector and employers can tap into a much larger and broader talent pool.

Many well-known tech companies have taken it upon themselves to implement these types of work-based training programs. LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Airbnb all have started job training programs that expose people without tech backgrounds to the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a tech position. And coding boot camps, where people can get a foundation in computer programming skills, are sprouting up everywhere, some of them sponsored by tech employers.

But for many small and mid-sized tech companies outside of Silicon Valley, finding the resources for on-the-job training or accessing a local talent-development pipeline that will bring in workers without a four-year degree is much more challenging.

“We have been receiving requests from small and mid-sized employers across the country to provide technical assistance,” said Pamela Howze, who directs work-based learning at the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. “There is a real sense of urgency to do something to fill these positions.”

The National Fund, through its large network of regional workforce collaboratives, is beginning to develop new technology-focused apprenticeship programs.

“Employers are looking for a way to bring in the workers they need, without relying on folks who have an expensive four-year degree. They know there is a local, untapped pool of workers who could fill the gaps,” Howze said, “but the barriers to enter the market are just too high. By finding creative ways to lower these barriers, employers are able to broaden their candidate pool while increasing job opportunities within their communities.”

The National Fund has begun engaging smaller tech employers far away from Silicon Valley to develop apprenticeship programs in coding and cybersecurity. In Alabama, for example, the National Fund collaborative Central Six AlabamaWorks is partnering with Innovate Birmingham to bring together employers, colleges, and workforce leaders to train the workforce to fill jobs in the region’s burgeoning IT sector. Employers in Chicago and Boston are also showing interest in developing these types of apprenticeship programs.

The National Fund will continue to respond to requests to support work-based tech training programs that are employer-led and tailored to local or regional demand. Those coding boot camps that were seemingly everywhere overnight? They are already facing some criticism for not being responsive enough to employers’ needs in a sector that is defined by rapid change.

In today’s tight labor market, dismissing the 60 percent of the workforce without a bachelor’s degree is a critical computational error. However, if employers consider alternative training models that are customized to their skills needs, they will have access to a much broader labor pool, expanding access to good jobs for the underemployed while also filling much-needed vacancies.