Originally published in Palo Alto Weekly (by Jenny Dearborn) — The great economic news: employment rates are at an all-time high. The terrific news for Americans seeking a career in tech: Our country has nearly 9 million available jobs in STEM with some 70 percent in computers and IT. The downside: more than a half-million of those computing jobs are currently unfilled, and projected to grow at twice the rate of all other U.S. jobs. What’s worse, only 49,300 computer science graduates joined the American workforce last year. Closer to home, California is expected to see a shortage of an estimated 2.5 million skilled workers by 2025. Forward-thinking tech companies in Silicon Valley are playing close attention to these ever-widening gaps and seeking solutions now to answer this burning question: Where is this talent going to come from?

Here’s where computer talent won’tbe coming from:

  • The American K-12 school system. U.S. schools are not even remotely keeping pace in filling the need for tech workers. Only 40 percent of American schools teach computer programming or coding, even though computing jobs are the No. 1 source of new wages in the U.S. Here in Silicon Valley, the situation is also dismal — less than 2 percent of California high school students take computer science courses. Coding should be taught like typing used to be.
  • Other countries’ tech workers. Importing talent is getting harder to do. The mounting restrictions on immigration and H-1B visas mean companies are losing access to workers from other countries, adding to the urgency with which tech companies must explore and embrace sustainable alternatives.
  • U.S. colleges and universities. Having more than doubled in average real cost in the past 30 years, a four-year degree has become a growing financial burden for many individuals and families. Student loan debt now totals more than $1.5 trillion. Our home state is also woefully behind, ranking 38 out of 50 in the rate of bachelor’s degrees earned in computer science. Of the 10 states with the most Latino students, California ranks last for the rate of Latinos awarded engineering and computer science degrees — compounding the struggles to increase diversity that tech companies already have. Less than half of Americans say a college degree is needed to be successful in the workforce (42 percent, down from 55 percent in 2009), yet Americans with college degrees are three times more likely to be employed than U.S. high school graduates.

What is the solution?

Our situation is urgent, but if we work together to develop local, diverse talent we will be able to onboard and train a workforce with grit and the skills to shape the future of work. Innovators in Silicon Valley can look to the past for an answer to their future: apprenticeships. Since the earliest times, skills have been transferred to the next generation via some form of on-the-job training. Today, robust apprenticeship programs are available to incoming workers eager to master well-paying skills, including for computer jobs.

Many tech leaders agree it is more than time to disrupt our traditional hiring models and talent pipeline and follow suit. The tech sector is well-suited to middle-skills jobs, which require more training and/or education than high school but less than a college degree. In fact, experts now agree that “degree inflation” has become a problem: companies often require a degree for jobs that can be performed without one. This practice widens skills gaps and increases costs, and can leave employers overpaying for people whose talents are underutilized.

Through technology apprenticeships, Silicon Valley can prepare workers for hard-to-fill roles and individuals can gain stable, meaningful careers without a college degree. Tech apprenticeships, now gaining steam and importance, are earn-while-you-learn programs that provide on-the-job training and mentoring from an employer and role-related classroom instruction from a community college, technical college, or computer “boot camp.” Because they can be customized to a company’s needs, businesses can quickly adapt to technology changes. All apprentices must meet standards for completion, typically hours of both employer-provided and classroom training, as well as demonstration of skills gained. Apprentices are paid throughout, with wages that increase as skills are mastered, providing an economically viable career path to stable, high-demand occupations — up to a $250,000 increase in lifetime earnings.

I urge my colleagues at forward-looking tech companies to join us in examining apprenticeships as a key strategy. SAP proudly co-sponsored the first Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Summit on Aug. 28 on our campus in Palo Alto. The event brought together thought leaders, including academics, educators and tech executives — both from HR and talent development and from the business — representing major Silicon Valley companies, to address the workforce gap and offer models of apprenticeship and collaborations with private and public institutions. Event co-sponsors were three such partners, which provide tech training and help match employers and apprenticeship candidates: TechSF (California Office of Economic and Workforce Development), Apprenti (a nonprofit based in Washington and active nationally) and Techtonica (a local nonprofit that helps Bay Area women and non-binary adults with low incomes).

Many hurdles must be overcome before our country prepares our citizens, adequately and equally, for computer jobs, and tech companies must participate in addressing those long-term hurdles. But right now, we can reach people before they become employees, to open the top of the funnel and provide the greatest opportunity to the broadest group of diverse talent. It’s not just about our responsibility as corporate citizens. We need more talent than our current talent strategies can target. We have to change if we are to survive.

The time is now for our industry to seriously consider launching apprenticeship programs — with Silicon Valley taking the lead.

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