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Tech employers need a better approach to talent acquisition

I read an interesting article recently on tech employers, and what the author termed the “opportunity gap” in the United States. His point is that tech employers frequently fail to hire the right workers because they focus on applicants’ current skills rather than their aptitude.

He relates the story of the current CEO of Revature, Ashwin Bharath. Bharath was born, raised, and educated in India. Immediately after college, a company hired him as a computer programmer. The problem was that Bharath knew nothing about programming computers. The company that hired him recognized that Bharath had the aptitude to program computers, so after hiring him, it spent four months putting Bharath through an intensive training program. He became one of the company’s best programmers.

The skills approach to hiring – where the applicant needs the skills in hand to do the work – causes a major problem in hiring tech workers. According to Bharath, tech employers in the United States created a quarter-million new entry level jobs every year. At the time, US colleges and universities cranked out 70,000 new computer science/computer programming graduates. That created a massive gap of 180,000 unfilled positions.

Compounding the problem further, employers hired only 40,000 of these newly minted computer science graduates. So, of the 250,000 entry level jobs employers created annually, they filled just 16% of them with entry level workers. Eighty-four percent of entry level computer programming jobs went unfilled by entry-level workers because US companies hire only fully skilled workers. They are not willing to train workers who could do the work with some additional training.

Tech employers create more, fill fewer jobs

Fast-forward to 2021. At the end of 2020, there were 1.4M unfilled tech jobs. Colleges and universities graduated 400,000 computer science graduates last year. The volume of both jobs and graduates has changed, but the math remains the same. Colleges and universities still create only 28% of the graduates needed to fill US tech jobs. US tech employers still hire fewer than half of them for their entry-level positions.

According to Bharath, one path forward includes continuous learning. If you mentioned the idea of continuous learning at a community college, you would find broad agreement. Unfortunately, Bharath’s idea of continuous learning is different from the continuous learning strategy that community colleges like WCC espouse.

In Bharath’s view, people need to develop the skills to teach themselves to acquire new skills for new positions. Most future jobs do not exist yet; no one knows what skill sets workers will require. It is not practical to send workers back to school to retrain for these new positions. Workers must acquire the skills as the need for them becomes evident.

In the community college’s self-serving view, it makes sense to train a worker to do a job. When that job no longer exists, the worker comes back to the community college to train for the next job. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Tech employers need adaptable workforce

Unfortunately, that is not what happens, nor is it likely to happen. When workers lose their jobs, they may retrain for a new career. Or not, depending upon their age and their personal situation. For many displaced workers, it is faster and easier to take a lower-skill position that does not require significant retraining. The workers may not earn the same salary they once did, but they can usually accommodate the income loss. In this model, just as tech employers need more skilled workers, workers retrench to lower skill, lower demand positions.

The community college does a major disservice to both students and tech employers by offering narrow skill-based training. People will not return to the community college over and over throughout their careers. Instead of training people to train themselves (and remain continuously employed), the community college wants to play the agent. Instead of supplying tech employers with adaptable workers, the community college provides inflexible workers with a minimized skill set.

This is not why the taxpayers founded the community college. We need workers who can retrain themselves when their employment outlook changes. We do not need a community college administration that designs degree programs to maximize repeat business.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk , via Flickr