Part 1: Colleges are Facing Challenges to Fill the New Tech Jobs Talent Pipeline

Higher education has been one of the most impacted and disrupted segments during the Covid-19 pandemic. More than ever, there is a need to activate the discussion in higher education on how the future workforce may look like going forward.

In the 2030s, jobs are going to be rather different from the ones that exist today. Many of those future jobs do not yet exist. As exciting as it sounds, it also represents a great challenge. 

At the recent digital CES 2021, a panel discussion representing academia and industry discussed new tech jobs and the imminent challenge colleges face to fill that talent pipeline. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Taylor, President and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. 

The conference session, From School to Work, discussed the need for a skilled workforce prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. This forces us to rethink how to educate students and fill the talent pipeline. To increase the awareness, academia and industry are partnering to solve the skills gap in new graduates. Key leaders and disruptors from academia and business are creating unconventional ways for preparing a skilled workforce.

Today, the U.S. talent pipeline alone has over 10 million people unemployed. "According to the Consumer Technology Association's (CTA) fourth annual Future of Work survey, 75 percent of tech companies continue to say that they face difficulty finding the skilled talent that they need,” said Taylor. About 50 percent of the digital skilled workforce is working remotely. So, there is an increasing demand for digitally skilled workers. 

According to LinkedIn, the top 10 most in demand jobs right now are as follows: 

  • Software developers 
  • Sales representatives
  • Project managers
  • IT administrators
  • Customer service specialists
  • Digital marketers 
  • IT support help desk managers
  • Data analysts 
  • Financial analysts
  • Graphic designers 

To tackle the situation, it is paramount to prepare the students for the jobs of today and tomorrow. From the academic perspective, Dr. Gregory Washington, President at George Mason University and who was one of the panelists, believes that solving the gap begins with academics acknowledging the massive change that the world is facing. 

"It took 20 years for e-commerce sales to get to 18 percent of retail brick-and-mortar; and since the pandemic, it grew to 28 percent; and that 28 percent took eight weeks," Dr. Washington said. 

"Online grocery has seen six years of acceleration. Working from home has seen 10 years in acceleration in terms of its growth in two weeks. And that massive change has disrupted whole work forces."  

There are two challenges happening simultaneously: 

  • Companies claiming they don't have their needs met 
  • Unemployment crisis that students are dealing with 

According to Dr. Washington, the unemployment rate in the United States for college graduates is 9.1 percent; the highest since the Great Depression.

"We're working together with industry and non-governmental organizations in non-traditional ways. We're developing a curricula that is in alignment with needs and social trends, working toward graduating students who are more T-shaped rather than I-shaped," he said. In other words, it means they have an in-depth understanding of a single area but they are also a little broad so that they can understand the other areas that are connected to the areas that they represent. 

George Mason University is working with industry to develop apprenticeship programs where they double the amount of internships that are available. In addition, the university has started a partnership with a local community college that provides a pathway to a degree to any student who wants it, no matter what academic standard that student is in. 

For Dr. Washington, the real gap is not of people but of experience. "We're graduating more graduates than ever, yet companies can't find people with the right set of experiences." 

Dr. Washington believes there is a need to provide clear pathways which provide flexible access to anyone. "Higher education has always been ranked based on the number of students it excludes. It's called selectivity," he said. "You're higher ranked if you're more selective. So, the more you exclude, the higher ranked you are. And that process needs to be turned up its head because of the unemployment and the challenges we are facing." 

Another thing to consider is the balance between soft skills and tech skills. According to Jennifer Henry, Senior Vice-President, Career Services at 2U Inc, a global education technology company that offers online degree programs, when employers are surveyed they say that often the soft skills are as important as the hard skills or the tech skills. 

For Henry, when you combine creativity, problem solving, collaborative skills, and empathy with the advanced tech skills then we have the talent with the strengths and the assets not only to deliver for business but also to help us continue developing the society we all want to live in.