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A new kind of tech job emphasises skills, not a college degree

A new kind of tech job emphasises skills, not a college degree


NYT Syndicate

A few years ago, Sean Bridges lived with his mother, Linda, in Wiley Ford, West Virginia. Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability check. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.
Yet while Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college. When Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations centre in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.
Now Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making $45,000 a year. In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money ” and career ambitions.
"I got one big break," he said."That's what I needed."
Bridges represents a new but promising category in the labour market: people working in new-collar or middle-skill jobs. As the United States struggles with how to match good jobs to 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 like college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment and 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 economy.
"We desperately need to revive a second route to the middle class for people without four-year college degrees, as manufacturing once was," said Robert Reich, a labour secretary in the Clinton administration who is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley."We have to move toward a system that works."
The skills-based concept is gaining momentum, with nonprofit organisations, schools, state governments and companies, typically in partnerships, beginning to roll out such efforts. The approach received a strong corporate endorsement from Microsoft, which announced a grant of more than $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 and Microsoft's grant will be used to expand it.
"We need new approaches, or we're going to leave more and more people behind in our economy," said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft.
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 nonprofit social enterprise. TechHire provides grants and expertise to train workers and link them to jobs by nurturing local networks of job seekers, trainers and companies.
Nichole Clark of Paintsville, Kentucky, heard a radio ad last year for TechHire Eastern Kentucky. The programme offered six months of training in software programming that included working with a company while being paid $400 a week. That was not much less than what Clark, now 24, was making as a manager at Pizza Hut.
Without a college degree, Clark said, her horizons seemed confined to low-wage jobs in fast-food restaurants, retail stores or doctors' offices. The TechHire programme, she said, could be"a doorway to a good-paying job."
After four months of taking all-day classes on the basics of writing software and two months of working in an internship alongside Interapt developers, Clark was hired by Interapt in May. As a member of the team that performs software quality assurance and testing, she is now paid more than $40,000 a year, about double what she made at Pizza Hut.
Clark is growing confident about her employment future."There are endless roles you can play, if you have these skills," she said.
In Rocket Center, where rocket engines were once built and some composite materials for US fighter jets are manufactured today, IBM occupies a few buildings and employs 350 people, including Bridges. They are working on cloud computing, cybersecurity, application development and help desks.
In the last two years, nearly a third of IBM's new hires there and in a few other locations have not had four-year college degrees. IBM has jointly developed curriculums with the local community college, as well as one-year and two-year courses aligned with the company's hiring needs.
For companies like IBM, which has 5,000 job openings in the United States, new-collar workers can help it meet its workforce needs ” and do it inexpensively if those workers are far away from urban centres, where the cost of living and prevailing wages are higher.
"It makes sense for our business, for the job candidates and for the communities," said Sam Ladah, IBM's vice president for talent.
The company, which stopped disclosing its US employment in 2007, and regularly cuts jobs in declining businesses, declined to say whether it was increasing its total domestic workforce.
But at the West Virginia centre, IBM plans to hire up to 250 people this year, including more like Bridges.
"Now, we're recruiting for skills," Ladah said.