by Daniel Fogarty
in The Star-Ledger on Wednesday, May 16, 2018
As the 20 finalists wait for Amazon’s next cut of potential HQ2 cities, many are skeptical of Newark’s chances.
Of the eliminated cities that have shared pieces of Amazon’s rejection feedback, most have cited a lack of a tech talent pipeline. Without sustainable sources of fresh talent to choose from, Amazon simply can’t fill the 50,000 jobs it’s promised the winning location.
New Jersey is no exception. According to JerseyCAN’s recent report, there are 1.4 open jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields for every unemployed person in New Jersey.
The solution to filling these jobs and tackling the tech talent gap in our region, and in the entire country, is complex and requires an innovative approach. My company, LaunchCode, a national nonprofit focused on opening doors to individuals wanting to break into the tech industry, has recently began chipping away at this issue in New Jersey. LaunchCode’s mission is rooted in the belief that anyone can be a talented technologist with the right resources and access to training…no four-year Computer Science degree required.
This belief is evident in the driven and talented individuals we train, for free, every day, like the ones currently in the midst of a targeted education cohort in Franklin Lakes. The 15 individuals, most from backgrounds that do not include a formal tech education, are being trained in z/OS mainframe, a specialized skill set needed by Express Scripts but not widely taught by college courses or coding bootcamps.
After spending four weeks in a classroom honing their skills, the students are now working at Express Scripts in the four-week apprenticeship phase of the process to gain on-the-job experience.
Two of these students, Ben and Alfredo, come from varying backgrounds but have one thing in common. Ben studied theatre and music in college and has work experience that includes a cruise ship jazz trio and a carpenter. Alfredo is a first-generation American with an accounting degree. Both discovered their passion for coding in unconventional ways but found that passion alone was not enough to break into the industry.
Ben first stumbled upon a programming language called ActionScript while generating music and animations for slot machine games for a company in the casino industry. After being charged with an engineering project, Ben had the opportunity to learn even more languages and develop his skill. But it didn’t matter.
“I sent my resume out to several tech companies but they wouldn’t consider me because I didn’t have the standard tech background,” Ben explained.
Alfredo’s story is similar in that he discovered his passion for coding almost accidentally. While doing credit reviews as a credit analysis intern, he realized the lengthy process could be simplified if he used his programming knowledge to automate it. “With Google’s help and a little work, I was able to automate the formatting…my boss wondered how I completed the task so quick!”
After deciding to make a career change, Alfredo’s started applying for entry-level programming jobs, but most required a Computer Science degree and at least three years experience.
Ben and Alfredo’s stories aren’t remarkable. It’s a common theme in every city: talented technologists can do the job but can’t get the job.
Accessible and affordable training is obviously important, but companies, both large and small, can also play a part. The partnership between LaunchCode and Express Scripts is a great example of building a pipeline in an innovative way that benefits all involved. Express Scripts gets the opportunity to customize the skill set of their junior talent to seamlessly fit their needs in a low-risk environment. The students partake in paid training and a job opportunity they may have never been exposed to without LaunchCode.
But not everyone can find paid customized training. Companies can also single handedly tackle the gap by rethinking their hiring practices to value a candidate’s skills and drive rather than a college degree.
If New Jersey wants to remain competitive for future opportunities like Amazon HQ2, whether it promises 50,000 jobs or 500, a renowned focus on cultivating tech talent is critical.