How Workers Can Adapt to the Technology Revolution

 Rebecca Koenig

You can't escape it. No matter where you work, digital technology is changing your job.

"All companies are becoming technology companies," says Tom Ogletree, director of social impact at General Assembly, a computer-skills training company.

Although some economists and researchers fear a future filled with job-stealing robots, others foresee a sunnier situation, according to a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 2,000 experts. Optimists say the proliferation of computer technology has created ample new opportunities for workers who possess or are willing to gain the right digital skills.

Acquiring these skills won't necessarily require traditional higher education. While technology is revolutionizing work, it's also changing how companies hire workers, too. Hungry for skilled labor, employers are looking beyond elite college campuses to coding boot camps and online job platforms to find qualified candidates they previously may have overlooked.

They're also thinking more seriously about training their own current and future workforces. They're paying for employees to brush up on their skills, starting apprenticeship programs to attract new workers and even pouring money into programs that prepare high school students to eventually fill jobs.

"More and more tech and non-tech companies are dying for technical talent," says Tigran Sloyan, CEO of CodeFights, a hiring platform that helps workers demonstrate their computer developer skills.

Opportunities in technology are abundant, then, if workers know what skills to seek, how to gain them and how to sell themselves to employers.

Defining the Skills

Experts fret about the "skills gap" preventing workers from filling technology jobs, but there's no one set of digital job skills that is definitively most valuable in the modern workplace, and there's no one authority that sets the skill standards.

Some individuals and organizations are trying to pin down the specifics, however. In a recent blog post, an executive at computer manufacturing company IBM named the following four skills as among the most in-demand across the country:

Cloud engineering and network development

Data science and analytics

Cyber threat detection

Design for digital experiences

Meanwhile, General Assembly has convened boards of experts in data science and digital marketing, asking them to define the skills those fields require and create benchmarks against which students and workers can measure their abilities.

"These skills are hard to define. They're a lot more abstract," Ogletree says. "The skills are changing in real time. The fields aren't as clearly defined because of that rapid change and a lack of transparency."

Training Beyond College

At the same time skills are being defined, a new industry has emerged to help workers strengthen their technical abilities. A plethora of online classes, full-day workshops and months-long training courses all promise to help participants land better jobs. Some attract workers who want to supplement their advanced degrees without going back to formal university programs, while others are designed for people who don't have higher education and who may otherwise have trouble breaking into technology jobs.

Among the big providers is General Assembly. Founded in 2011, it now offers a variety of training options in web development, data science and digital marketing in cities around the world. The most intensive is its three-month, full-time boot camp, which costs nearly $15,000. That's a big price tag, but according to Ogletree, 95 percent of program graduates find a job within six months. Most General Assembly students already have college degrees, and the average participant age is 30. Often, they take General Assembly classes instead of pursuing graduate degrees, Ogletree says.

Access Code, a program offered by nonprofit C4Q, uses a different model. It trains low-income New York City residents for entry-level jobs as computer developers by teaching them to create mobile applications. The program has no upfront costs, but participants commit to paying back the organization 12 percent of their annual salary for three years after securing a tech job if their wages exceed $60,000. According to C4Q, the average salary of participants before completing Access Code is $18,000, and among alumni, the average income is more than $85,000.

Just more than half of participants don't have college degrees; 45 percent are women, 60 percent are African-American or Hispanic and 50 percent are immigrants. That's a very different demographic breakdown than the technology industry at large, where white men predominate.

"We are accessing a huge talent pool that hasn't had the opportunity to get these jobs," says David Yang, co-founder and chief creative officer at C4Q.

Selling Skills, Not Degrees

For organizations like General Assembly and C4Q to help workers secure jobs, hiring managers have to accept the premise that raw ability is more valuable than credentials. After all, it won't do workers much good to improve their skills unless they can also prove them to potential employers.

Traditionally, many employers have used college degrees as a gatekeeping mechanism in the hiring process. Job applicants without university diplomas – or the right university diplomas – may never stand a chance at landing some positions, even if they have the necessary skills.

"Right now, it's predominantly just pedigree-driven recruiting," Sloyan says. "If you're from a no-name university or haven't had the good luck to work at Google, no one will pay attention."

But that's starting to change, Sloyan says. Companies like his are designing skills assessments they hope employers will use in the hiring process instead of relying on "pedigree as a proxy" for ability.

Through the CodeFights platform, job seekers take tests to prove their technical skills, and businesses create customized assessments they ask candidates to complete. Eventually, Sloyan says, workers' scores on these tests may function similarly to credit scores, which immediately impart information about them to companies.

General Assembly is also working to build tools that measure workers' abilities in the hopes that companies start using those test scores in hiring.

"In the best case, an employer would say, 'Anyone who scores above 700 on the back-end web development course can get this job, whether you went to MIT, or taught yourself, or went to a boot camp,'" Ogletree says. "Industry interest is the key piece here."

Companies Investing in Training

Fear of obsolescence motivates some workers to strengthen their technology skills on their own time and at their own expense. But many companies are realizing the value of investing corporate dollars to help current and future employees master the latest tools and techniques.

Apprenticeships are one way companies commit money to training workers. Thanks in part to support from the White House for alternative pathways to career success, corporations like IBM and The Dow Chemical Company are coordinating with the U.S. Department of Labor to create training programs that pay apprentices to learn new skills on the job. Among the job titles for IBM apprenticeships: "junior data analyst," "software engineer" and "mainframe system administrator."

Rather than fire workers whose skills are outdated, some business leaders double down on support for current employees. That can take the form of tuition reimbursement for individuals: Many of the students in General Assembly's part-time programs receive tuition assistance from their employers to participate, Ogletree says. It can also mean signing up entire departments for skills testing and training, as other companies have done.

"If they make investments in their own folks, training and 'reskilling' them rather than going outside, that can reap meaningful rewards for them, and at the end of the day, save on costs," Ogletree says.

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Domain: Afterhours
Category: Entertainment
Rebecca Koenig
03 May, 2018