Tech & Work

New 'TechHire' initiative from the White House aims to get more Americans plugged into tech jobs

The initiative aims to develop resources, relationships, and opportunities in cities big and small to quickly train tech talent.

Image: WhiteHouse.gov

One of the most well-worn topics in the tech community is the growing skills gap — too many jobs, not enough qualified people to fill them.

As of recently, though, awareness of this situation may start seeping out past those actually working in the industry.

The White House announced on March 9 that it's launching the TechHire initiative.

The initiative is multifaceted, but in general, aims to get more Americans, especially minorities and underserved populations, trained to fill tech jobs, like software development and cybersecurity, that can lead to a middle class lifestyle.

During a speech that day, President Obama cited 5 million open jobs, more than half a million of which in information technology fields.

"What's more, these tech jobs pay 50 percent more than the average private sector wage, which means they're a ticket into the middle class," Obama said.

Reed said bringing visibility to the issue might be one of the biggest benefits to come out of the initiative.

"The tech community itself, I think everybody realizes what we're dealing with. We understand it's a battle people deal with everyday," said John Reed, executive senior director of Robert Half.

There's not one fix to get people moving in this direction professionally. The initiative includes getting employers to to change the ways they recruit and place applicants based on skills; $100 million in federal investments toward "innovative approaches to training and successfully employing low-skill individuals with barriers to training and employment"; efforts on the part of "private sector leaders" to aid with free training online, and the expansion of coding bootcamps, to name a few.

The mention of non-traditional educational methods like coding camps is particularly interesting — there's still ongoing debate as to their effectiveness in giving students not only enough experience to function at an entry-level job, but also the ability to progress in their careers.

See: Do programmers still need a computer science degree to land a great job?

But as time progresses and the need grows, attitudes change too.

"It turns out, it doesn't matter where you learned code, it just matters how good you are in writing code, " Obama said during the speech.

Dave Hoover, co-founder of Chicago-based Dev Bootcamp, said it's been validating and encouraging to have the support of the White House.

It's true that not every employer is comfortable with hiring someone without a four-year computer science degree, but they're limiting their talent pool, he said.

Plus, coding camps can be an option not just for people looking to transition into a new career, but for those who can't afford to go through a four-year program time-wise or money-wise.

Part of the initiative also includes partnering with 21 communities, both large and small, from New York and Los Angeles to Albuquerque and Memphis.

Reed said people tend to think about tech jobs being out in tech hubs like New York or San Francisco, or even in bigger metropolitan areas like Dallas, Texas, and assume they have to be there to get a desirable job in tech.

"This will open up the eyes of people who maybe live in one of these communities today, and say 'I don't have to leave to go somewhere else to get a really cool technology job, or to work with an innovative company. I can do that in my own market," he said.

But what does that look like on the ground level?

One of the cities involved in the TechHire Initiative is Louisville, Kentucky.

In 2013, a free, 12-week course called Code Louisville launched, fueled by volunteer mentors, partnerships with local companies, and help from the KentuckianaWorks department. The program aims to help students develop coding skills through a mix of in-person mentorship and self-driven learning, done through a learning platform called Treehouse, available through the Louisville Free Public Library system.

Rider Rodriguez, who is the deputy director of KentuckianaWorks, helped found Code Louisville. He said the program will be the core of the city's involvement in the initiative.

"Cities who are starting from a relatively smaller base of technology workers need something to kick start access and broad-based interest in the field," he said.

Rodriguez said interest in certain fields within a given area is often driven by cycles.

"Kids become interested because they have role models in the field. If you don't have the opportunity to run into many people in tech, then you are less likely to consider it as an option for you," he said.

Next year, Code Louisville will expand as part of the Workforce Innovation Fund grant from the Department of Labor, as well as grow relationships with local businesses.

Beyond Code Louisville, other efforts to have more educational opportunities in Louisville will include bringing Dev Bootcamp to the city by the middle of this year, Hoover said. Recently, they set up in Columbus, Ohio.

"We're really happy that we have a model that we feel like we can go into cities the size of Louisville and really make a difference and still be profitable as a school," Hoover said.

Another development to come out of this initiative is the establishment of the New Economy Skills Training Association, or NESTA, Hoover said. So far, it includes about nine bootcamps across the country.

"We all tend to be doing our work and whether you're Code Louisville or Dev Bootcamp in Chicago or Launch Code in St. Louis, we all are doing our work, but it's not until the White House initiative and the roundtables started last summer that we all started becoming way more connected," Hoover said.

NESTA's also resulted in the establishment of standards by which those bootcamps report on themselves.

And that's a good thing for prospective students. Because there have been no standards or regulations, students have no way of knowing what exactly it means when a bootcamp reports job placement of a certain percentage.

"We can't just randomly say '99% employment.' What the heck does that even mean?" Hoover said.

The coding camps reached the agreement via email, just last week. Hoover said there was a bit of drama, but it all came through.

"Even though we're all in some ways competitors, we're all very collaborative," he said.

Also see:

About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

Editor's Picks