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Training Can Close the Technology Skills Gap

April 11, 2022 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

With the unemployment rate below 4%, it’s a brutal time to be a recruiter. For tech roles, it's even worse. Just 2% of tech workers are currently unemployed. That dearth of job seekers is becoming a crisis for companies that rely on tech talent. 

“The pipeline just doesn’t exist,” said Aimee George Leary, global talent officer for Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), a McLean, Va.-based global management and information technology consulting firm with nearly 30,000 employees.

George Leary predicted that up to 75% of BAH’s new hires will need tech skills in the coming year, which is causing her team to rethink who they hire and how they train them.

“Instead of looking for a perfect fit, we are building our own pipeline,” she said.

Building an Internal Talent Pipeline

BAH recruiters now focus on their “capability pipeline,” where they fill in candidates based on their baseline skills and capabilities for a specific role. If a candidate can demonstrate they have some of the core skills required for the job and show a willingness to learn, they can be hired and trained into the role based on their individual needs.

“If we can get close to the skills we need, we will train them to fill the gap,” George Leary said.

The BAH training program is customized to each trainee’s needs using online learning platform Udemy, live classroom training with internal instructors and other new hires, mentoring and on-the-job learning. That last element is a critical piece of the pipeline. Having new hires work with a seasoned team on client projects gives them the experience of working in a fast-paced environment where they can ask questions, and see how the team collaborates and solves problems.

“On-the-job learning is very important to our work,” George Leary said. The end result is that most new hires have the skills they need to fly solo within eight to twelve weeks.

This approach to developing new hires gives BAH the leverage they need to fill in-demand roles. As part of the company’s recruiting strategy, the talent team now creates three- to four-month firmwide hiring plans to understand what new talent they need in their pipeline, and then recruits a cohort of new hires to train for deployment.

“It can take three to four months to find the perfect candidate,” she said. Using this approach they fill roles sooner, which gives them the time to train new hires before client projects emerge.

Related Article: Why Soft Skills Matter and How to Develop Them

Attention: Arts Majors and Career Changers

This approach of "training to the gap" is becoming a popular trend among companies struggling to win the war for talent. At Thoughtworks, a Chicago-based global technology consultancy with more than 10,000 employees, it has been part of the hiring strategy for years.

“We have always believed that talent development is the secret sauce to our success,” said Joanna Parke, chief talent officer for Thoughtworks. The company prides itself on hiring non-traditional talent for tech roles, including arts majors, career changers and women returning to the workforce, she said. It ensures they bring different experiences and ways of thinking to their client projects, and opens the company to a much more diverse talent pool.

“It has given us strength in today’s talent marketplace, but it has always served us well,” Parke said. It has also helped the company meet its goal that at least half of every cohort of entry-level new hires is female.

That build-your-own approach doesn’t mean that Thoughtworks is training total novices into complex tech roles. While they don’t have to have a computer science or engineering degree, they may have a certificate in coding, completed a bootcamp, or taught themselves to code using online courses. “Candidates have to show some interest and aptitude in tech,” she said.

Once hired, they are sent to Thoughtworks University, which is currently virtual, but in pre-COVID times occurred as a six-week training program in India, Brazil or China. New hire cohorts completed self-paced and live virtual classroom training to fill their knowledge gaps and learn how ThoughtWorks approaches every project. They also participate in client simulations and eventually work as part of a team of developers. The combination of classroom and real-world training helps candidates gain confidence, and helps managers see their strengths and weaknesses, Parke said.

While this hiring approach has been a feature of Thoughtworks culture for some time, it has become essential in the last few years. Five years ago, the company had no problem finding candidates they could send directly to a client site on day two if necessary.

“That’s rare these days,” Parke said.

Related Article: Returnships May Be the Answer to Your Hiring Woes

Starting Small Can Lead to Big Results

While Thoughtworks and BAH have the resources and scale to train novice candidates into complicated tech roles, others companies that aren't so fortunate can apply the same principles to their own hiring methods. It doesn't need to be overly complex or complicated.

“You don’t have to build an entire L&D program,” Parke said. “Hire a few of people who show potential, provide some learning and mentoring, then let them learn on the job.”

This approach to building talent has additional benefits beyond helping to solve the hiring problem. Training raw talent into hard-to-fill roles helps companies fill roles faster, and it creates workforce resilience.

“When you invest in someone right out of the gate it builds loyalty,” George Leary said. “There is a lot of value in that.”

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