Creating more job opportunities for underserved communities

Connecting low-skilled workers with training for high-skilled jobs

While the headline unemployment rate is low, underemployment rates are not. At the same time, almost half of all employers — 46 percent — are reporting talent shortages. The largest companies, those with more than 250 employees, are having the most difficulty filling roles.

There are millions of people who are working in low-paying jobs because they don’t have the skills to compete for the higher-skilled jobs employers are struggling to fill. To that end, it’s more important than ever for companies to recruit from talent pools they may not have previously considered.

“There is a common saying that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,” says Beth Mily, chief executive officer of Geekwise Academy, a division of BitWise Industries in Fresno, Calif.

“If we can create more opportunities for the underserved,” according to Mily, “those individuals are given the chance to actualize their potential, and the (tech) industry is able to benefit from the shared experiences and diversity. It is also important that the technology industry, and all industries, are representative of the communities they serve.”

Geekwise Academy offers an accelerated training program for current and aspiring technologists. Within the technology sector, job openings are expected to grow from 500,000 to more than a million by 2020.

More than 50 percent of those in BitWise’s local community are people of color; more than 50 percent are female; and more than 40 percent live below the poverty line. BitWise works with technology companies to develop relevant training that enables workers to learn and develop the skills they need for prospective jobs. Its programs received a $27 million investment this summer from Kapor Capital and the New Voices Fund.

As part of the funding announcement, Mitchell Kapor, a partner at Kapor Capital, said that BitWise’s strategy of “weaving together training and education with software development and commercial activity in a common physical space has proven to revitalize communities, while also successfully addressing the growing skills gap in the tech industry.”

Richelieu Dennis, founder of the New Voices Fund, echoed those sentiments: “Sourcing talent from traditionally overlooked and undervalued pools is one of the most effective strategies for companies to remain competitive as the demand for innovative technology solutions accelerates and the expectations for enhanced revenue, performance, and brand trust increase.”

A few thousand miles east of Fresno, the nonprofit Per Scholas provides tuition-free technology training and professional development in 11 cities, including New York, home to the organization’s South Bronx headquarters. To date, more than 10,000 individuals have gone through the training; 87 percent are people of color, 30 percent are women, and 30 percent are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24.

“Per Scholas supports individuals who lack the opportunity, but not the intelligence, passion, or creativity to succeed in the tech workforce,” says Bridgette Gray, executive vice president of national programs for Per Scholas. “Our focus is on women, people of color, immigrants, and individuals who lack the social capital and face barriers to education that have traditionally excluded them from technology careers.”

Those barriers start early. “There is a 6,000-hour learning gap between high-income and low-income students by the time they reach sixth grade,” Gray says. “And that access to opportunity continues into high school and adulthood. The result is often different educational outcomes and unequal career opportunities.”

For people without advanced degrees, employment options are often limited to manual and unskilled labor jobs paying less than a living wage, Gray notes. Per Scholas alumni, on the other hand, have increased their average earnings by 27 percent, and they’re 50 percent less likely to rely on public assistance.

Beyond the technology sector, other industries have also created targeted job training programs as part of in-house recruitment or through partnerships with local governments.

Gap Inc. launched This Way Ahead in 2007 to connect with community partners in preparing teens and young adults from low-income communities with first-job experience and coaching. The program has led to increased worker retention, and in a survey of alumni, 72 percent reported stable employment. The Gap expanded This Way Ahead to 53 cities last year; the goal is that by 2025, five percent of all new entry-level store employees will come from the program.

In the state of Washington, 19,000 King County residents between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in school or in jobs. This summer, Kaiser Permanente announced a $350,000 grant toward a consortium that will assist low-income youth and young adults. Kaiser is partnering with the Workforce Development Council to provide apprenticeship pathways for jobs in health care.

“There is tremendous momentum for the apprenticeship model in our region,” Kim Wicklund, director of community health at Kaiser Permanente, said in a media statement. “We are delighted that the consortium is looking at apprenticeship opportunities through the lens of equity and supporting disengaged youth in accessing such important programs. These young adults play an important role in the health care workforce of the future.”

Low-income and under-educated populations aren’t the only underserved and overlooked pools of potential employees. People with disabilities, military veterans, the homeless, and the formerly incarcerated are also among the populations recruiters are missing.

So far, BitWise Industries says its programs have produced more than 1,000 software developers. And while there are plans to continue expanding those efforts, Mily calls on companies and local governments to partner with organizations like hers to create more opportunities.

“One organization certainly cannot build a technology industry alone,” Mily says. “A training program that provides a workforce without a place for the workforce to land fails in supporting industry. Companies without access to a trained workforce will relocate to a place that has talent. Programs that train students on real work and help them gain employment by giving them the skills and connections they need to enter into industry are critical. Companies that are committed to hiring local talent and cities that support the launch and growth of startups are key.”

Per Scholas estimates that by 2023, the organization will reach 4,000 students a year through its training in current and future sites, preparing them for entry-level jobs in business, finance, energy, fashion, media, and more — in disciplines ranging from systems administration and IT support to cybersecurity, application development, and data engineering.

Gray calls on educators to be part of the solution. “Each group has a different role to play in creating these opportunities,” she says. “Policymakers and government entities [both at the federal and local levels] should support workforce training organizations that have evidence behind their results, are building training to meet skill demands, and are deeply connected to employer networks in their markets.

“We also need to transform the education system to make it more responsive to the hiring needs of the workforce,” Gray continues. “This can be done by supporting new partnerships and pathways between workforce practitioners, high schools, and community colleges, as well as building bridge programs that support individuals to reach the reading and math levels that are necessary to excel in tech-skills training.”

Victoria Lim is a California-based, award-winning journalist.

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