With half a million unfilled tech jobs in American workplaces, some tech companies are training workers from outside the traditional talent pipeline to fill gaps and enhance diversity.
When the talent shortage began to hit, IBM created "New Collar" jobs, which the company defines as emerging roles in new tech fields including cloud, cognitive computing, and digital design that don't require a computer science or other tech degree.
"We're viewing what we're doing with New Collar jobs as one way to help close the gap," said Kelli Jordan, IBM's talent leader for New Collar Initiatives. "We have to come up with ways to find new talent—looking at skills people are bringing, and not just credentials, and looking at people who learned skills through nontraditional paths such as vocational schools and bootcamps."
Between 10-15% of all IBM hires have been in the New Collar space in recent years, Jordan said. These employees came from backgrounds in music, fast food, creative writing, and the military, Jordan said.
Yeshe Wingerd, a front end developer for IBM Cloud in San Francisco, studied flamenco guitar in college, and later worked as a winemaker. After attending a six-month coding bootcamp through Galvanize, one of IBM's partners, he became a New Collar worker. "My transition into the tech world did not come easily," Wingerd said. "Because I had started with no experience, it was a lot of work—often 14-hour days. I was starting from scratch and I really had to push myself to learn all that I needed to know."
Wingerd said his career in wine helped him develop soft skills such as engaging with people and quickly understanding their tastes and motivations, while much of the thinking behind music theory parallels that behind programming.
"To those who are in non-tech fields and interested in breaking into a tech career, it is important to understand that there are other skills from working in other careers that are very valuable and applicable," Wingerd said. "In programming there is always so much to learn and things are constantly changing so it can be intimidating. It really helps to build a strong foundation in the fundamental concepts, and be OK with not knowing everything."
IBM plans to continue to grow its New Collar ranks: Last week, it announced that it is expanding its New Collar career partnerships to more than a dozen new community colleges throughout the US. The company also has academic training partnerships with more than 70 US universities and community colleges to address the skills gap.
"There is a wealth of untapped opportunity sitting in our local communities—folks that have the grit and wherewithal to build their education and skills," Jordan said.
SEE: Job description: Cloud engineer (Tech Pro Research)
A number of tech companies have also started up apprenticeship programs in recent years as a way to tap nontraditional talent, fill jobs, and diversify the tech workforce.
Despite the number of open jobs, it remains difficult to measure the actual state of the tech talent shortage, said Angela Hanks, associate director of workforce development policy at the Center for American Progress. "This is an industry that has some challenges reaching out to nontraditional candidates like women and people of color," Hanks said. "It's hard to say whether there's a talent shortage, or whether there's some gap between what employers are looking for and who they're finding."
For example, many tech companies have jobs that don't require a four-year degree to actually do the work, Hands said. However, "in the last several years we've seen this credentialism and degree inflation, and jobs that used to require high school or apprenticeships now require a four-year degree, which can act as a barrier because they are not needed to do the job," she added.
Tips for tech leaders
Partnerships are key for developing a new talent pipeline, Jordan said. "A lot of companies have partnerships with four-year schools, but you should get into the community and look at courses available at community colleges and vocational schools," she added. "You have the opportunity to hire people locally with the skills."
Tech leaders should be looking for candidates who are self-motivated, and who have taken steps to improve their skills through whatever means possible, Jordan said.
Companies should also internally assess what the actual job entails, and if a degree is needed, Hanks said. After that, they have a chance to develop training programs that help people fill those roles.
"Having diverse perspectives can help with problem solving, and helps you as a company become more effective," Hanks said. "If the problem you're trying to solve is a talent gap, and you're not willing to look at anyone without the explicit credentials you've laid out, it's hard to say that this is a problem with candidates and not companies."
As companies think about hiring a set of nontraditional candidates for jobs that might not require a degree, they also need to consider what career ladders exist within in the company for these employees. "It can't be that the only diversity at the company is in junior staff level positions with no room for upward mobility," Hanks said. "You can provide training, but once the person is doing the work, think about the next steps."
Local nonprofits working with underserved communities can also help companies with recruitment and retention, Hanks said.
"There are good candidates out there, and some of the challenges companies are experiencing are going to require some thinking outside the box," Hanks said. "There are people who can do these jobs who aren't the typical candidates. Turning this into a problem that could probably be solved with better recruitment and more strategic thinking about how people get onboarded is where you should start."
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Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.