New kind of tech job seeks skills, not college degree

Skills-based hiring creates new gateway to middle class for US job-seekers

ROCKET CENTRE (West Virginia) • Mr Sean Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making US$45,000 (S$62,000) a year. He represents a new but promising category in the United States labour market: people working in new-collar or middle-skill jobs.

As the US struggles to match good jobs with the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how a worker's skills can be emphasised over traditional hiring filters such as college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment, tailored training and a gateway to the middle class.

This skills-based jobs approach matters at a time when there is a push to improve the circumstances of those left behind in the US economy, many of whom voted for President Donald Trump.

"We desperately need to revive a second route to the middle class for people without four-year college degrees, as manufacturing once was," said former US labour secretary Robert Reich, who is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "We have to move towards a system that works."

The skills-based concept is gaining momentum, with non-profit organisations, schools, state governments and companies, typically in partnerships, beginning to roll out such efforts.

On Wednesday, the approach received a strong corporate endorsement from Microsoft, which announced a grant of more than US$25 million to help Skillful, a programme to foster skills-oriented hiring, training and education.

The initiative, led by the Markle Foundation, began last year in Colorado, and Microsoft's grant will be used to expand it there and move it into other states. "We need new approaches, or we're going to leave more and more people behind in our economy," said Microsoft president Brad Smith.

HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY

We're trying to use the very forces that are disrupting the economy - technology and data - to drive a labour market that helps all Americans.

MS ZOE BAIRD, chief executive of the Markle Foundation.

It is unclear whether a relative handful of skills-centred initiatives can train large numbers of people and alter hiring practices broadly. But the skills-based approach has already yielded some early and encouraging results in the technology industry, which may provide a model for other industries.

These jobs have taken off in tech for two main reasons. For one, computing skills tend to be well-defined. Writing code, for example, is a specific task, and success or failure can be tested and measured. At the same time, the demand for tech skills is surging.

One tech project that has expanded rapidly is TechHire, which was created in 2015 and is the flagship programme of Opportunity@Work, a non-profit social enterprise. TechHire provides grants and expertise to train workers around the country and link them to jobs by nurturing local networks of job seekers, trainers and companies.

In just two years, TechHire's network has grown to 72 communities, 237 training organisations and 1,300 employers.

It has helped place more than 4,000 workers in jobs. TechHire's mission is partly to chip away at "the cultural hegemony of the bachelor's degree", said Mr Byron Auguste, president of Opportunity@Work.

In Colorado, Skillful is working to improve the flow of useful information among job seekers, employers, educators, governments and local training groups. The organisation focuses on jobs in tech, healthcare and advanced manufacturing.

Ninety companies have worked with Skillful's staff and partners to refine and clarify their descriptions of skills. That data has contributed to an online "training finder" tool - built by LinkedIn researchers - that shows salary ranges, skills required, training programmes and nearby openings for different occupations. (Microsoft acquired LinkedIn, a Skillful partner, last year.)

"We're trying to use the very forces that are disrupting the economy - technology and data - to drive a labour market that helps all Americans," said Ms Zoe Baird, chief executive of the Markle Foundation.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2017, with the headline 'New kind of tech job seeks skills, not college degree'. Print Edition | Subscribe