Opportunity@Work and Fullstack Academy are training non-traditional workers for “new collar” jobs.
By Natalie Pompilio
Some version of the headline seems to pop up every time the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its monthly report on the nation’s employment situation: “So many good American jobs, so few qualified workers.”
The “skills gap” doesn’t just apply to underrepresented groups like women and minorities. It affects workers of all stripes, including those who move between industries, those who find their expertise is no longer relevant in today’s job market, and the two thirds of U.S. adults without four year college degrees. Two programs with Wharton ties are working to close the gap by teaching in-demand skills as well as by encouraging businesses to move beyond traditional hiring practices— like requiring a minimum degree or using a talk-heavy interview process—that hinder the hiring of quality candidates who could fill valuable “new collar” vacancies.
“There are people who have the skills to do the job even if they don’t have the ‘right things’ on their résumés,” says Yuanxia Ding WG11, vice president of strategy, business operations, and learning for the D.C.-based nonprofit Opportunity@Work. “It’s not necessarily because they don’t have the skills to do the job, but rather that they’re not making it into the system to even have the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do.”
Opportunity@Work is corralling a stable of existing tech workers and providing training to new ones by finding candidates through nonprofit and community organizations that serve overlooked populations, including veterans and older Americans. Companies seeking new hires can contact the organization to find pre-vetted job applicants. “We’re not asking companies to change everything they’re doing,” Ding says. “We’re asking them to try something new.”
Fullstack Academy, a coding boot camp with branches in New York and Chicago, is also seeking to upend the traditional way of hiring. In 2015, Nimit Maru WG12 and co-founder David Yang noticed that women only made up about a quarter of its student body. That prompted the launch of the Grace Hopper Program, which actively recruits qualified women and is named after the pioneering computer scientist who died in 1992. The 17-week immersive software engineering course has no up-front payment. The cost comes later, when the new programmer finds an industry job. Those who don’t get jobs within a year have no payback requirements.
“Out-of-pocket costs exclude a lot of people—often the underserved people in society,” Maru says. “You’re taking a lot of chances with a program like this—maybe quitting a job and committing to a career that may seem unwelcoming or intimidating at first. By changing one variable, we remove a lot of risk.”
Fullstack also seeks to diversify the tech industry by urging employers to have applicants demonstrate their programming skills in a simulated work environment rather than via traditional interviews with puzzles and trick questions. Studies have shown that performance on trick questions doesn’t equate to superior job performance.
Maru’s strategy appears to be working: Last year, Google was one of the most active employers of Fullstack graduates. “In 2013, they wouldn’t have even looked at our students’ résumés,” he says. “Their hiring system wasn’t designed to consider students without four-year engineering degrees. Now they’re realizing that someone with a college degree but no practical experience may actually be less likely to succeed. Employers are evolving and looking beyond traditional markers.”
Published as “Bridging the Skills Gap” in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Wharton Magazine.