Closing the Google talent gap: Pilot program aims to pair Silicon Valley labor with tech jobs

Oct 9, 2014, 3:06pm PDT
Lauren Hepler, Economic Development Reporter
Silicon Valley Business Journal

Silicon Valley tech companies are hungry for talent, with big wigs like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. posting hundreds of jobs at a time and often looking around the world for new recruits.

But the Bay Area workforce already includes about 3 million people, raising the question of why local employers and local workers aren’t connecting more often — especially when it comes to the huge pool of potential entry- and mid-level workers.

"Tech companies have spoken about the importance of a more diverse workforce and a more robust regional talent pipeline," said Luther Jackson, program manager at Sunnyvale workforce-development nonprofit NOVA. "We want to make sure that underrepresented populations — low income, women, people of color, long-term unemployed, veterans, etc. — have all the tools they need."

In a discussion held Wednesday afternoon by urban planning group SPUR, Jackson outlined the ways NOVA is trying to make that happen after an infusion of federal funding linked to a new regional economic prosperity strategy. NOVA and Oakland’s Stride Center are attempting to better match underutilized laborers with good jobs in IT, hardware repair or other white-collar work paying $16 an hour and up at a time of immense change in the workforce.

Jackson, a native of New York state, saw firsthand what happened when auto manufacturers dismantled their domestic production lines. Now, he’s seeing a similar squeeze on Silicon Valley’s middle class result in stratified pools of high- and low-wage labor, including about 1.1 million workers earning less than $18 per hour.

Employers including Mountain View's Intuit Inc. have already participated in discussions about in-demand skills, and the group hopes to engage other local businesses as well.

“The hard thing to bring to scale are the employer relationships,” said Egon Terplan, SPUR's regional planning director and project manager on a new report about economic mobility linked to the NOVA pilot project.

As the disintegration of traditional career paths and rapidly changing job descriptions make it harder to move up from the bottom, Jackson doled out some advice for workers looking to get ahead of the curve:

1. Don’t get attached to a title

Getting an education or a one-time certificate of a measurable skill no longer guarantees job security, especially in fast-moving Silicon Valley.

"It used to be that you could join a company and pretty much if you did a good job, you would be rewarded by advancing," said Lisa Rijhwani, a program supervisor at NOVA. "Many of the individuals we’re seeing at our career center were in that position and 25 years later are being laid off.”

While tech also has a separate reputation for ageism, Jackson and Rijhwani suggest that workers looking to break into the industry plan for a career instead of banking on one dream job, simply because that job might not exist for very long. Though things like relationship-building and self-awareness used to be seen as "soft skills" desirable in management candidates, employers now expect those people skills from all applicants.

"You need to be able to find your way around this complex tech ecosystem," Jackson said. "We want to enhance the curriculum so that they learn what we’re calling career navigation skills.”

2. Show, don't tell

Though Massive Open Online Classes are still a bit of a wild card when it comes to educational or workplace value, Jackson is a fan of open-source work tools that allow people to demonstrate knowledge of skills like web design, writing or any number of things.

“You can demonstrate your proficiency and people will hire you,” he said.

The most obvious challenge here: Area workers already juggling one or multiple jobs likely have little time to spend worrying about personal brand-building.

"The good news is you don't do it all at once," Rijhwani offered.

3. Be prepared to temp

While Silicon Valley is creating lots and lots of jobs at the moment, it's not a secret that companies are also increasingly looking to lower-cost labor through contractors or other temporary workers.

“Many, many companies and lots of high-tech companies are looking for employees, but they don’t want to bring them on directly," Rijwhani said. "They want to work with an agency.”

In that case, benefits and job security may also still not be guaranteed, emphasizing the importance of career planning to move on to full-time employee status.