Between 2014 and 2016, 75 percent of all venture capital funding in the United States went to three major tech hubs: Silicon Valley; New York City; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Organizations such as Rise of the Rest seek to push funds toward the startups in the middle of the country that might get passed over otherwise.
However, the road to rising up isn’t entirely smooth — many companies between the coasts still find recruiting great talent to be an issue. Last year in the Midwest, for instance, 45 percent of small businesses reported to The National Federation of Independent Business that they were struggling to hire qualified candidates.
This disconnect points to a gap in workers’ skills. If we truly want to invest in the Heartland’s talent and economic potential, it’s a gap we’ll have to close.
Minding the gap
With the Obama White House predicting in 2013 that there would be 1 million unfilled programming jobs by 2020, demand for talent is quickly outgrowing the number of qualified candidates being spit out by the traditional higher education job track. This is leaving companies without enough people to put technological advancements to use.
Traditionally, companies have sought employees who fit a rigid set of qualifications. But driven, skilled individuals are just as capable of filling tech hiring needs, even without the usual credentials. Being open to nontraditional education routes can also benefit corporations.
At LaunchCode, we partner with employers to develop training programs that will result in a set of graduates with the specific skills they need. Express Scripts informed our team at LaunchCode that it was looking for Pega developers and COBOL programmers, so we created a custom class to fill that need, allowing 27 junior-level programmers to be placed into high-paying, highly sought-after jobs via a sustainable pipeline.
But a large part of this solution also lies in employers’ hands. Companies all around the country need to rethink how they source and develop talent.
Seek candidates with skills, not credentials
We live in a world in which checking off traditional boxes on a resume still reigns supreme, especially when it comes to our dependence on the value of higher education. However, there are countless individuals in this country who have the drive and the aptitude to succeed but cannot afford a four-year degree. In the tech world, even alternative forms of training like coding boot camps are costly, and companies tend to be averse to hiring entry-level tech employees because of the time and effort required to train them.
But changing the perception that a traditional degree is the end-all, be-all sign of talent is possible. Over the past four years, I have seen company after company I’ve worked with change their hiring process to focus on skills and competencies instead of experiences on paper.
Some startups and younger companies value skill and aptitude more than credentials because these are better indicators of a candidate’s potential. The head of people operations at Kabbage (a fintech company that provides funding for small businesses) writes that her team doesn’t consider advanced degrees at all in the hiring process if its not required for the job, and instead opts for candidates who are “insatiably curious.” Along those lines, Capgemini, an IT company, started a recruiting initiative in which it hires employees without a college degree, then sends them to college part-time in addition to training them.
You can also look for alternative tools to qualify candidates for their skills and potential. There are tools like Degreed that qualify candidates for skills ranging from coaching to knowledge of programming languages. Or there are companies like CodeFights, which relies on coding challenges to find promising engineers for companies, that you can draw inspiration from.
Checklist-like requirements don’t compare to what an employee can actually do on the job, so shift your hiring mentality to reflect that.
Training initiatives should be both vertical and horizontal
Training initiatives should be based both in mentorship (a junior-senior vertical approach) and in knowledge sharing (a peer-to-peer horizontal approach). Mentorship programs are one of the easiest training initiatives that you can develop in-house. An effective mentorship program pairs senior employees with new or junior employees to further develop their skills, such as learning a new programming framework.
Not only does mentorship offer junior employees new skills and insight into the company, but it also gives senior employees leadership experience and management skills. Mentorship programs can also help boost company morale because mentors feel like they have a role in shaping the company’s future and are therefore more invested in its success.
Horizontal training initiatives — such as retraining and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing — can be more difficult to implement but are just as rewarding. Build programs that encourage continuous learning and ensure employees are up-to-date on training and best practices. For example, have tech employees who know newer programming languages train co-workers who are proficient in an older language.
This process also curbs hiring costs incurred by seeking new employees with new skill sets. Encourage (or even require) employees to attend some form of professional development to keep the whole team’s skills current, whether that means attending conferences, workshops, or classes.
Silicon Valley became America’s tech hub because it has the greatest concentration of tech talent in the country, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only part of the country with skilled tech workers. If the Heartland wants to foster its own tech hubs to rival Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston, local startups as well as tech organizations should take measures to develop and refine their talent pools.
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