Just a few years ago, a young man named Alfredo Molina didn’t want to be an accountant anymore. He had learned a new skill, programming, all on his own — and he was good at it. He was ready to put that to use in a career more up his alley, one where he felt he could make more of a difference with his skills. Alfredo quickly found, however, that in spite of his portfolio and ability to easily pass any entry-level programming test, he couldn’t get a single call back from recruiters. What was the deal?
He simply didn’t have a computer science degree.
Meanwhile, companies both in and outside of the tech sphere have bemoaned the national talent shortage as they scramble to hire the best and brightest. These businesses need experienced developers and engineers to further their goals, but even conglomerates like Google can’t seem to find them, even when great candidates like Alfredo are searching every day for an opportunity.
Nobody is winning here, and it’s frustrating to watch.
In my position, I look at this disconnect quite literally every day — I serve as the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit that provides free tech training and help with job placement for skilled individuals. I see reports on the alleged skills gap pop up frequently, and I just as often see individuals like Alfredo seek LaunchCode’s help (which he did when he realized it’d take more than just persistence and aptitude to land a tech job). The tech companies and Alfredos of the world are looking for each other, but they just can’t seem to connect.
Perhaps the skills gap isn’t as looming as some might have us think. Situations like Alfredo’s lead me to argue that companies are spending too much time looking for the “perfect” fit (a candidate with a degree, experience, aptitude, and — most importantly, I’d say — potential). The candidates I see often check off two or three of those boxes, but because companies are searching for unicorns, these candidates often get passed over. Peter Cappelli, a professor and HR pro who wrote an entire book on this hiring dilemma, agrees with the notion that modern businesses are too picky. So it’s not entirely a skills gap. It’s a gap in expectations.
The reality: There’s no such thing as the perfect candidate. This is especially true in tech, where new tools and programming languages continue to create unexplored niches and push industry standards to new heights all the time. Colleges and universities can’t keep up with scaling like Silicon Valley can, so there’s a deep disconnection between supply and demand. That part isn’t news.
It’s easy to point fingers at parties like schools — are they really preparing students for an ever-changing, ever-demanding future? — or the industry itself with its constant evolution. And it’s not that those entities don’t have any effect on the field as a whole (they absolutely do), but a simple shift in how companies look at their hiring practices can snowball into a big impact in building a solid workforce.
I joined LaunchCode a couple of years ago because I knew it was an organization working to make a dent in this issue. But what we do requires companies to be receptive in order to be successful — we could train 10,000 students every year and it wouldn’t make a difference if companies have blinders on looking for someone who checks all the boxes, not someone who’s going to prove to be a major asset in the long run.
That puts responsibility on employers. Tech company leaders need to rethink both what they’re looking for and how they’re willing to build up employees in order to build a robust, sustainable workforce that helps close this expectations gap overall.
For one, companies in today’s tech climate should focus more on hiring for aptitude and willingness to learn than on traditional résumé credentials, especially for technical positions. Experience and education are relevant, sure, but they don’t compare to an individual’s motivation and ability to learn. A candidate who can adapt to changing technologies and trends has much more long-term value — especially for those junior or entry-level positions. These talent-hungry companies should want candidates who want to grow, not candidates who tick 47 different qualification checkboxes.
This also calls for a mindset-shift in training and upskilling more verdant employees. Just because candidates aren’t ready for a full-time or senior position now doesn’t mean they won’t be in a few months or years — think back to your own trajectory and how quickly your skills evolved. Tech company leaders need to look at how they divvy up the work available for employees to do and what expertise that work requires. Is there room for a junior-level programmer or apprenticeship program for those just starting out? Programs like these can be the perfect stepping stone for both candidates and companies; it’s what we’ve used at LaunchCode to help individuals land full-time opportunities.
Tech companies would benefit most from this mindset shift today, but as technological know-how becomes essential in more industries, hiring practices will need to evolve across the board if we want to stop having the skills gap conversation. Rather than biding their time looking for the perfect mix of skills and experience right now, companies should hire the candidates most likely to be assets in the future.
By the way, Alfredo completed an apprenticeship program for pharmacy benefits manager company Express Scripts and now works there full time. And he’s doing splendidly.