It takes a leap of faith as well as a lot of time and money to get the training you need to start a new career – expenses that most folks in marginalized communities can barely afford. If there isn’t a job or an opportunity to start a small business on the other end, it can dash hopes and drain pocketbooks, leaving people worse off than when they started.
This was the bitter experience many community groups had with green jobs. They worked hard to train members of their community only to discover that the jobs they’d been told to expect never materialized.
If we are going to ensure that as many people in every community can find work in emerging tech, training isn’t enough. We need to build a bridge between training and work that communities can count on.
Connecting Training and Work When Jobs Are Plentiful
For inner-city and some other communities, there are often plenty of good paying emerging tech jobs in the surrounding area. The issue is how to ensure people in their community can get hired. The following are some strategies that might be worth exploring.
While training is valuable, what employers most want is experience. There’s a big difference between what goes on in classes and the real world:
- The Real World Is Messy. In class, everything is designed to help you learn. If they’re teaching you sophisticated AI techniques, for example, odds are you’ll be working with cleaned up data. Classes usually spend relatively little time on what will eat up most of your day when you get a job: cleaning your data so it fits the AI technique’s data requirements.
- Tech Is about People. In most classes, you spend most of your time working by yourself. In the real world, most developers work in teams, writing and maintaining code that’s collectively owned. And many developers’ jobs require them to work closely with users, juggle competing pressures from different departments, and occasionally deal with internal politics. These interpersonal skills, which can make the difference between success and failure, aren’t taught in most tech classes.
And for prospective students, training is often expensive. You have to pay for the training, and you may only be able to work either part time or not at all.
This isn’t a new problem. One solution that’s worked well in several industries: apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships are rare in the tech world, but it may be time to start experimenting with them. Apprenticeships address both employers and trainees needs:
- Trainees get paid as they learn
- Employers end up with an employee with real-world experience
Make Job Description Work Requirements More Realistic
Today, many IT managers – or their companies – create job descriptions that don’t fit their actual needs.
- Credentials Creep. In the field of machine learning, for example, it’s not uncommon to see job listings that require a PhD even though the work the person would do in that job would almost never require that level of skill.
- Expertise Inflation. It’s not uncommon for employers to ask for more years of experience than is needed – occasionally for more years of experience than the tech has existed.
None of this is surprising. Managers and companies often don’t have the knowledge or experience to know what level of expertise their organization needs, and they don’t have an easy way to find out.
Inflated job requirements are a problem for all employees, but it’s especially a problem for people who’ve taken a nontraditional path to obtain the skills employers need. They don’t come from the kind of background most employers are most comfortable with. On top of that, whether they are white working class from the country or people of color from the inner city, they may face employers who consciously or unconsciously underestimate their abilities.
In short, if we want as many people in every community to have a real shot at emerging tech jobs, we need to start exploring how to ensure employers get the help they need so they don’t ask for more expertise or experience than their jobs require.
Foster Informal Connections
Many jobs are never advertised; people find out about them through informal networks. Although there are some structural solutions that might be worth considering to reduce the importance of these informal networks, we should also explore strategies for using networks to our advantage.
For example, as we discussed in the previous chapter, if we build a rich support ecosystem that spans community and work, we could use it to foster informal connections that could make employers more comfortable hiring people with nontraditional backgrounds and/or training.
Key Features of a Good Solution
As communities begin to experiment with solutions, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. We should always ask, what can we learn from other efforts to solve these problems? For example, what can we learn from union hiring halls and apprenticeships in other industries?
- Address the User Experience of Trainees and Employers. Efforts like these often don’t grapple with what it’ll be like for trainees to go through this process. And they almost always ignore the user experience of frontline managers. Even managers who want to do good in the world are often so overwhelmed with the rest of their job that idea of taking what they perceive to be a significant risk may be hard to do. Making it as easy and painless for both employers and would-be employees to participate can make the difference between success and failure.
- Start with Low Risk, Expand the Circle. Start experiments with employers who can afford to take some risks – e.g., it’s a lot easier to experiment with hiring if you’re frequently hiring developers. But plan to invite in a wider range of employers as the project gains traction.
- Focus on Diversity. Although the tech world talks a good game about democratizing coding for all, most tech companies have made remarkably little progress in creating a workforce that is diverse as the society where they work. Therefore, any solution should designed so it makes diversity a top priority.
- Engage the Whole Public. To have the greatest impact, we should tackle these problems as part of broader efforts at civic engagement (see Part 3). There may already be an initiative in your region to tackle these questions that most people in the community – including many employers – don’t know anything about because the project didn’t decide to deeply engage with the public.
What to Do If There Are Too Few Jobs Or Business Opportunities
The above strategies assume there are enough jobs or opportunities for creating small businesses in the region surrounding the community. But what if there aren’t? What about, for example, rural communities where there may be few if any good paying tech jobs? The following are some strategies that might be worth exploring.
Use Large Tech Companies and Multinationals to Bootstrap the Process
Large tech companies and some large US multinationals have an almost insatiable need for tech staff. They couldn’t supply enough jobs for every community that needs them. But they could certainly create pilot projects that might open up new opportunities.
For example, a few companies could begin by hiring small numbers of individuals and/or hire a fledgling consulting company from these communities. If these efforts were successful, they could experiment with scaling them up.
Over time this approach could help to bootstrap local tech scenes. For example, if a few large tech companies pave the way, showing that rural and other overlooked communities have the technical chops and the business/interpersonal skills needed to do a great job, other firms might be more willing to take a chance on hiring them.
There’s no way to know in advance if this strategy would succeed on a scale that would be effective. And this approach would have to be careful not to substitute one problem for another – e.g., making these communities overly dependent on large outside companies, whose needs could easily change. But given the needs of both parties, it’s well worth trying.
Use the Government to Bootstrap the Process
If large tech companies and multinationals can’t play this role in enough communities, we should explore having the government step in.
- When Silicon Valley first took off, it greatly benefited from strategically targeted government intervention. DARPA, other defense agencies, and intelligence agencies were often “early adopter” customers who were eager to buy new tech products before almost anyone else. In doing so, these federal government agencies created demand that helped kickstart new tech markets. There’s no reason it couldn’t use a similar approach aimed at marginalized communities.
- Like large corporations, the government has an enormous need for developers.
To figure out an effective role for the government, we would need to run some pilot projects. And there are number of potential dangers we would need to address – e.g., to reduce the danger of corruption, political favoritism, nepotism, etc., we would need an approach that was fully transparent. But given the impressive track record the federal government has in helping underwrite the rise of the tech industry, if the private sector can’t give rural communities a leg up, there’s no reason why the public sector can’t help.