The battle for tech talent will require a plan (and a plan B)

by Emma

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After a year of pandemic-related job losses in the U.S., it might seem out of place to talk about the huge talent gap in our domestic tech industry. The reality is that the pandemic drove demand for digital customer experiences and products in an unprecedented way. In retail, for example, McKinsey reported that e-commerce skyrocketed to account for 33% of all retail sales in July 2020, far exceeding previous predictions that it would take until 2024 to achieve 24% of retail sales — a feverish pace that equated to more gains in 6 months than in the previous 10 years. As these digital trends stay with us, the talent gap will be exacerbated as competition for engineers, UX designers, and other tech workers are heightened. It’s important for companies of all sizes to have a multi-pronged talent strategy that reduces their risk but also enables them to be ambitious and realize their digital transformation agenda at the pace the world is now demanding. This means that talent considerations need to stretch beyond new hires; companies need a plan to develop internal continuous education programs for existing teams. 

Remote-work first versus remote-work friendly
Remote hiring used to refer to offshore talent or a specific employee arrangement; a team really wanted to hire a candidate based in Los Angeles, for example, and might extend an offer knowing they wouldn’t have a formal office space. These remote employees faced similar frustrations and challenges — conversations would happen around the office that they would miss, sometimes people would forget to add a Zoom link, or documentation wasn’t great and remote individuals would miss important details. In the last year or so, many companies have transformed their teams to be remote-first out of necessity and in doing so have expanded their horizons geographically in terms of where they might recruit. Thinking outside of physical office locations for talent acquisition opens up huge new pools of talent, particularly outside the U.S. where the tech talent gap is severe. For example, next-door neighbor Mexico graduates over 130,000 computer science graduates annually, easily dwarfing the estimated 65,000 graduates in the U.S. In the very recent past, nearshore or offshore employees would struggle to be participative in an office culture that wasn’t remote-friendly (let alone remote-first). Our collective new attitude (and accidental remote work experiment from COVID) should mean that even when we do return to physical offices, we will be more cognizant of remote individuals and teams. Partnering with teams in Mexico, a country with many English speakers, excellent computer science programs, and compatible time zones, should feel substantially less risky than before.

Hire for potential & train for expertise
Education is the secret weapon of many large and fast-growing companies. This has certainly been true for my company Wizeline — our teams were able to hire more than 300 employees in a single month in 2020 due to our well-structured new hire education programs. While trained over 10K students last year via our free community-based Wizeline Academy programs, but one of our most impactful talent programs has been paid apprenticeships. Apprenticeship programs (as well as paid internships) provide structure for assessing prospective candidates while also providing targeted education to level up any missing skillsets. We primarily leverage paid training programs for our hardest-to-hire roles, like data engineering, and searched for candidates with just a few years of engineering experience but were motivated to gain expertise in a new field. Before converting to a full-time role, apprentices follow a structured path that includes mentorship, coursework, and real work experience. I was proud to see that these programs not only added predictability to how we hired, but they enabled us to make a bigger impact on our local communities. For example, our Site Reliability Engineering apprenticeship program had gender parity with 12 out of 24 participants that identifying as women. Beyond capacity and scale, continuous education is a critical move for companies who want to keep their workforce responsive to disruption or change. Launching reskilling programs can encourage fluidity between departments and allow for upward mobility for more junior employees, which should positively affect retention and likely also employee satisfaction. 

Commit to creating more opportunities for more people
Low or no-cost education programs can be a powerful tool for bringing more opportunities to underrepresented groups and expanding your hiring pool simultaneously. Encourage your teams to make a serious commitment to making education programs equitable and set goals for broadening access. Diversity and inclusion initiatives can be great opportunities to involve your customers and partners. Last fall, Wizeline was thrilled to partner with Amazon Web Services to provide 398 free cloud certifications (from more than 2,000 applications) for women in Latin America. By comparison, Wizeline certified 150 employees last year in cloud programs, so more than doubling that figure for women in our community was only financially and logistically possible with the enthusiastic support of a partner. 

The tech industry moves quickly, and the shortage of technical talent is not a new phenomenon. However, the last year has taught us that companies can be adaptable to new ways of working. Many leaders have shifted their mindset around office culture, physical work locations, flexible and remote work, and new employee onboarding. Companies can diversify their talent pools by taking a hard look at their education offering – both internally and for prospects – and aligning it with the skill sets they need most. Developing and executing a layered tech talent strategy is hard work, but the increasingly digital world will need all of us to stay on our toes and think creatively.

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