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Home Grown Talent: How Partnerships Help Companies Close the Digital Skills Gap

October 26, 2020 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Five years ago, recruiters in the local offices of TEKsystems discovered a compelling new source of talent — students graduating from Per Scholas, a nonprofit workforce development organization that trains people to fill high-demand tech jobs. 

The candidates were being hired to fill key network support roles and hiring managers were thrilled with their skills and training, said Faith Johnson, vice president of HR for Maryland-based TEKsystems, a global IT staffing and talent management services firm. “The field offices brought Per Scholas to my attention, and we recognized an opportunity to do more,” she said. 

Per Scholas is not alone in working with local employers to develop training opportunities in underserved communities. In August, retailer Target announced a partnership with Summit Academy OIC, a Minneapolis-based vocational training school, to create the North Star Innovation Center, a technology training center for students from underserved communities. Bank of America signed up in September to support VA Ready, a nonprofit focused on retraining unemployed workers in Virginia for high-demand jobs. 

Companies everywhere are grappling with the shortage of IT talent and efforts to meet their diversity and inclusion goals. These public-private partnerships can help solve both problems, said Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of the Center of Workforce Innovations, a nonprofit workforce development organization in Valparaiso, Ind.

“It means more money is spent in the local community, more people get employed and employers are able to hire people who are screened and trained for the exact jobs they are trying to fill,” Woloshansky said. “It’s a low-cost, low-risk way to hire.”

Partnerships Help Close the IT Skills Gap

Per Scholas partners with businesses like TEKsystems to identify skill gaps in their local talent pool, then works with them to create 12-16 week training programs for candidates drawn from underserved local communities. Nearly 90% of the students are people of color, a third are women, and a third are young adults.

“The corporate sector needs new sources of IT talent, and the number of open jobs far exceeds the number of people getting four-year degrees,” said Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas. Programs like Per Scholas can help close that gap, while bringing a more diverse talent pool to the IT sector. 

Recognizing the value of this talent source, TEKsystems transitioned from hiring graduates to becoming a customized Per Scholas training partner, launching its first program in Baltimore in 2018. Since then, Johnson’s team has launched programs in Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.

As a training partner, TEKsystems employees work with Per Scholas to hone the curriculum, mentor trainees and provide guidance on resumes and interviewing skills. “Per Scholas teaches them the skills and we prepare them for the real-life job market,” Johnson said.

To date, TEKsystems has trained hundreds of students through the customized training program and has 150 more students starting programs in November 2020. “It’s been a huge win for us,” Johnson said. In fact, their success has meant her team is getting calls from more local offices asking to bring Per Scholas to their cities. “It’s so much more than a partnership. We are making an impact on the community.”

Related Article: Want to Be a Leader in the Digital-First Era? Upskill Your Workforce

IBM Heads to High School

It's an approach Grace Suh, vice president of education and corporate citizenship for IBM, is also taking. “Industry has to be more inventive in finding ways to nurture talent into their pipelines,” said Suh, who leads IBM’s P-TECH program, an accelerated STEM program offered in high schools to get students ready for the workplace faster, and to take on hard-to-fill mid-level tech jobs. 

“P-TECH is a way for us to raise educational equality and workforce inclusion,” she said. The program combines high school and college courses, allowing students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and associate degree in 4-6 years with no tuition costs. P-TECH business partners also provide paid internships, site visits, project days and other support programs to help students build their business networks and get ready to be part of the workforce.

“Our people take so much pride in mentoring these students,” she said. “So many of them go on to do amazing things.”  

P-TECH, which launched in 2011, is now in 220 schools in 11 states and 24 countries, and has more than 600 business partners who work with educators to customize the curriculum for local needs.

Programs like P-TECH are also helping change the way companies like IBM think about talent. Suh noted that 43% of IBM’s job descriptions no longer require a four-year degree and recruiters are trained to vet candidates based on skills, not degrees. “It’s been a game changer for our organization,” she said.

And IBM isn’t letting the pandemic slow them down. To ensure P-TECH students continue to get the support they need, the company is hosting 1,000 virtual internships, and launched Open P-TECH, a free platform that anyone in the world can use to learn in-demand tech skills and earn badges to demonstrate mastery.

Related Article: Raise Your Organization's Digital IQ: The Timing Has Never Been Better

How to Get Started With Skill Development Partnerships

It’s important to recognize that these skill development partnerships are not charity work. “We are building talent to the exact specifications of our partners,” Ayala said. “It’s a very intentional and cost-effective way to fill your talent pipeline.”

To make the most of it, companies interested in launching their own training partnerships need to be sure they have buy-in from across the company. “Everyone has to be excited about the program and the talent coming out of it,” he said.

The most effective programs require company employees to actively participate in developing targeted curriculum, mentoring students, and prioritizing graduates as new hires.

“It’s an amazing talent population,” Ayala said. “You just need to give them a chance.”



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