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Preparing the Next Generation of Tech Talent
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Preparing the Next Generation of Tech Talent

Companies are looking for digitally savvy Americans to fill hundreds of thousands of tech jobs. New educational models are emerging to teach them the necessary skills.

Spotlight on state Dallas, TX

Photography by Ty Cole

It’s 11 a.m. on a muggy September morning in Dallas, Texas, and Johnathan Thai is tired after a two-plus-hour precalculus class at his community college on the far north side of town. His day, however, is just beginning. In a couple of hours, he’ll start his shift at a cybersecurity company in nearby Addison, where he started working as a customer-care agent a week ago. At 11:30 p.m., he’ll stop taking calls and drive to the home he shares with his mother and grandmother. If he’s lucky, he’ll get to sleep by 1 a.m.

It’s a grueling schedule, but the 21-year-old Thai feels lucky to have it. Three years ago, he was working part-time at a fast-food restaurant and struggling to keep his grades up at school. He knew he wanted to work with computers, but he didn’t know whether he could get the kind of job he wanted. Then he discovered Year Up, a nonprofit workforce-development program for low-income young adults. Through Year Up, he was introduced to Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate, a hands-on online program hosted on the learning platform Coursera that’s designed to prepare independent learners and community-college students for entry-level IT jobs in less than six months. (With support from Google.org, the nonprofit JFF will expand the program to 100 U.S. community colleges by the end of 2020.)

A few months after completing the certificate, Thai landed an internship at a major financial institution. A few months after that, he got the job offer at the cybersecurity company. Now he’s working four days a week and getting valuable professional experience—all before finishing his associate’s degree. “I realized that I had a lot more potential than I initially thought,” he says.

Demand for digital talent like Thai outpaces the supply. Today hundreds of thousands of unfilled digitally intensive jobs call for more education than a high-school diploma but don’t require a four-year college degree. In the field of IT support alone, there are 215,000 open roles in the United States. The reason many of those jobs have gone unfilled, according to Kathy Mannes, vice president at the education and workforce development nonprofit JFF, is that the country’s education system has been slow to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing economy. “Generally, we have pretty structured, traditional ways of entering jobs,” Mannes says. “Employers need to onboard people more quickly with the skills that they need right away.”

According to Sean Gallagher, the founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, there are a growing number of ways for people to learn these skills. In fact, the past decade has been a period of great experimentation for postsecondary education, as microcredentials, digital badges, and certificate programs have emerged at colleges as well as noninstitutional educational providers. “The pressure and the momentum in the marketplace is for shorter, more modular, more job-market-aligned credentials that are more affordable,” he says.

Employers have long had a stake in ensuring that educational institutions are teaching students the skills they need to become productive members of the workforce. But according to Mannes, they’re taking a more hands-on approach to engaging with colleges than ever before. “Companies don’t want to just come be part of an advisory board,” she says. “They want to say, ‘These are the skills people need. How can we help you integrate them?’” Natalie Van Kleef Conley, the product lead for Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate, says corporate educational initiatives don’t simply grow the talent pool; they also help make the economy more equitable. Certificate programs, she says, can serve as “a strong entry point for nontraditional talent into tech,” especially when they’re offered at community colleges, which enroll many low-income and minority students. Through the Google program, for instance, graduates can choose to share their information directly with a consortium of top employers hiring IT talent.

Should aspiring tech workers ditch the degree entirely? Not so fast. In a Northeastern University research survey published last year, 77 percent of HR professionals reported that the value of educational credentials, including traditional degrees and online degrees, has increased or stayed the same over the past five years. Since many nondegree credentials are so new, Gallagher says, a lot of employers still look to them as supplements to traditional degrees rather than replacements.

Melinda Williams

For 14 years, Melinda Willams has run her own salon and taught cosmetology. But now, she’s thinking about a career shift. Through her local community college, she enrolled in Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate program. “I got to about the third course and I’m like, ‘You know, I could probably do this for a living,’” she says.

Still, skills-based hiring practices are on the rise, and a degree-free path to tech employment is becoming a possibility for more people. Take Melinda Williams, an Ohio-based cosmetology teacher and salon owner who recently completed Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate and is now exploring a career transition. Or Solo Pieh, a 19-year-old living in Garland, Texas. Like Thai, Pieh completed the Google certificate through Year Up. He then quickly got his first full-time job as a QA tester at a national bank.

Both Pieh and Thai know that continuing their formal education is important for advancing their careers even further, however. That’s why they’re still working toward their associate’s degrees. “My family has always said, ‘You have to be going to college,’” Pieh says. “I understand the benefits it will have on my life later on.”

Thai has big plans for the next few years. He wants to work toward a bachelor’s degree and, ultimately, find a job as a cybersecurity analyst. At one point in his life, he might not have had the confidence to aim for that kind of future. But now he feels up to the task. “My educational journey was definitely a roller coaster—a lot of ups and a lot of downs,” he says. “Right now I’m definitely up.”

Non-degree credentials are on the rise, and they're helping grow the tech talent pool.

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