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The future tech worker pipeline might not be through college

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An instructor teaches an online coding class at Tarena International's Zhongguancun campus in Beijing

An instructor teaches an online coding class at Tarena International's Zhongguancun campus in Beijing on July 24, 2020. - Some 700 students enrolled in the Zhongguancun campus, part of the Chinese training company which provides IT training and technical consultation, are currently taking online coding classes due to social restrictions amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Tarena International's Zhongguancun campus in Beijing] instead of [Tarena International's Beijing campus]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

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There are two long-standing trends in the tech industry that have intensified over the last couple of years: there are more jobs than workers to fill them and there’s a need to diversify this workforce.

As a result, more and more companies are rolling back degree requirements that were part of many job descriptions.

That’s given new opportunities to people like Stanley Omotuyole. He left Nigeria a couple years ago to join his dad in Seattle, giving up a degree program in laboratory science.

“Moving to the States, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, do I have to go through all of that, again?'” he said. “It felt impossible at first.”

Omotuyole knew he wanted to break into Seattle’s tech industry, but he didn’t have the time or money to go back to university. 

So he signed up for a coding bootcamp, which led to an internship at Microsoft, which led to an apprenticeship through an organization called Multiverse, which partners with tech companies to provide alternative career pathways for non-traditional candidates.

Since January, Omotuyole has been honing his software development skills at Box, a cloud storage company, and getting paid as he learns.

“That opportunity to both learn and be able to apply all of that at the same time — you know, even coming here, I did not imagine that this was an opportunity that I’ll be able to have,” he said.

Workers without college degrees bring all kinds of skills and potential and are key to a more inclusive tech industry, said Papia Debroy, who leads research at the non-profit Opportunity@Work.

“When an employer requires a bachelor’s degree, they’re screening out almost 70% of our Black workforce, almost 80% of our Hispanic workforce, and they also screen out almost 75% of our rural workforce,” she said.

While many tech companies say they’re loosening up on degree requirements, it’s easier said than done. A Harvard Business School analysis of IT job postings from 2017 to 2021 found some of the biggest tech firms still demanded degrees for upwards of 70% of jobs.

Joseph Fuller, a professor of management and co-author of the report, said it’s likely because employers are looking for soft skills that are harder to test or prove on a resume.

“Employers used college degrees as a proxy for social skills,” he said.

But there are a handful of companies that have made progress. One is IBM, where fewer than a third of IT jobs required a degree — the best rate among all the tech companies.

Obed Louissaint, IBM’s senior vice president for transformation and culture said it can be more labor intensive to hire this way: “It does cause us to, job by job, say ‘What’s the success criteria?’ Right?” he said.

Rather than relying on a degree as a catchall, they have to figure out the skills that each position requires, and how many of them can be taught.

“What’s more important than the technical skill is the curiosity to learn,” Louissaint said. “Because we can teach someone who is curious and tech savvy a number of different skills.”

The approach requires education for hiring managers too, he said. At IBM they go through training known as License to Hire to ensure their practices are in alignment with the company’s goals and that they’re not bringing their own college biases to interviews.

“It’s similar-to-me bias,” he said. “I went to this school, you went to this school, we spend the first 10 minutes recounting what you know about the school. But you don’t have that relation with somebody who didn’t go to university.”

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