In the pundit scramble following the 2016 presidential election, I heard a commentator say the electorate could be divided into two distinct groups: those who have benefited from the technical revolution and those who have not. While we know the outcome of a national election is based on a variety of complex factors, history provides plenty of examples of workers left behind in the wake of technical advances. Clerks and scribes lost their niches after the invention of the printing press; textile mills displaced weavers; and steel manufacturing plants that once employed thousands can now be run with a few hundred managing the automated processes.
Today, few jobs do not involve technology at some level. We’ve innovated nearly everything, and we continue to update with the speed of the next idea. For technology companies, in particular, the search for talented staff is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s not breaking news that there’s a shortage of workers with software and programming skills in the U.S. In September 2015, Fortune reported that there are 1.42 tech jobs for each worker. This statistic is exacerbated by the fact that skilled tech job seekers are reportedly 3.6 times more interested in working in tech hubs like San Francisco, San Jose, Austin and Seattle — not reassuring for those of us in other geographies.
What’s alarming is the overwhelming lack of creativity in the face of this talent shortage. At a recent national technology and innovation conference, I listened to a panel focused on recruiting and retaining top female technical talent. I found it surprising that panel members were not enthusiastic about the benefits of encouraging career changers to enter the technical field. The panelists’ view was very traditional: go to a top-tier program like MIT or Stanford and get a technical degree. That view may work for Amazon and Google, but it is not particularly realistic for a small company recruiting tech talent in the Midwest.
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Career changers are a valued resource pool
In NIPR’s Java shop in Kansas City — where we build and support software for the insurance industry — we are pursuing a different (and, I would argue, more innovative) recruitment path. We compete with large national telecom and tech companies for architects, developers and automated testing experts, and we have found that career changers have provided us with some of our top talent. We have hired former welders, medical researchers, math teachers and Marines. They now build software, run our scrum teams and provide production support for our customers.
It would be overstatement to suggest that this successful talent recruitment approach was a result of leadership’s foresight and brilliance. Rather, we benefited from strong employee recruitment and retention programs and a bit of luck. Through a vigorous internship program, many of today’s technical staff members started out in entry-level positions in customer support areas. All — and this is where the luck comes in — were logical thinkers, problem solvers and hard workers who were open to trying new things.
A common theme among our career changers is that their path to a technology career was less intentional than you might expect. Few saw the career path ahead. Rather, as one of our team members said, “I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I was willing to take a low-level job to get in the door.”
Demystifying technology jobs and “growing” technical talent
Software development and technology jobs are shrouded in an aura of mystery, often appearing inaccessible and likely preventing smart, capable people from ever considering technical careers. NIPR — with luck and good recruitment — has demystified tech jobs for career changers. We know from experience that great technical talent can be grown. One of our talented software developers has a unique perspective that gives clarity and a “common sense” dimension to his technology work. As a former union welder and Walmart employee, his seems an unlikely path to a tech career. But that’s not how he sees it. “I’ve always had the same job, I’ve just used different tools to get the work done. Whether moving freight at Walmart, moving steam through pipes as a welder or pushing code into production, I am doing the same thing. I have to keep things moving, find the road blocks and fix them. Whether data, freight or steam, my job is to keep it moving seamlessly to the customer.”
NIPR’s willingness to take a risk on career-changers has also netted staff members who typically have well-established work habits, understand collaborative work environments and, as one of our mangers put it, come to the job “more fully formed.” These are people who are adaptable to change — a constant in a technical environment. An added benefit: Career-changers bring a level of excitement to their role, adding energy and value across the company.
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With an appreciation of the rewards that career-changers bring to our workplace, we are now trying to turn luck into strategy. We are looking for smart, creative, hard-working, engaged thinkers who are willing to learn.
NIPR’s strong tuition reimbursement program and a recently added student loan contribution plan help build skills and improve retention. The next step is a stronger in-house training program and a mentoring program that will help provide an even more supportive environment for career changers.
One of NIPR’s team leaders summed it up nicely: “Support from others is key to everyone’s success. We see it as part of the job to transfer knowledge and help others succeed. That’s a win for all of us.”