IT staffing firm Talent Path helps job seekers get the skills they need for a tech career by paying them to learn the skills employers are looking for.
Starting a tech career can seem impossible, especially when you don’t have the skills employers are looking for. On the flip side, employers can find it hard to hire people with the skills they need given the rapid pace of change in industry.
During a recent episode of TechRepublic’s Dynamic Developer podcast and video series, I spoke with Kip Wright, CEO of Talent Path and President and CEO of Genuent, about the how his organization is working to bridge this IT skills gap and helping people jumpstart their IT careers by hiring them as full-time employees while they learn the skills needed to fill in-demand IT jobs.
The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for readability.
Bill Detwiler: So, tell me a little bit about Talent Path. How is it different from other IT staffing companies that people may be more familiar with like TEKsystems, or Insight Global? What’s different about Talent Path?
Kip Wright: Yeah. And if you will, I’ll give you a little bit of the story behind it too, because I think that’s an important piece. So, when you look at most IT staffing providers, we generally provide a range of services that span from contract resources, contract to hire, or recruiting very specifically for full-time employment on behalf of companies. And when you’re in that mode, you’re generally, in many respects, the broker of talent. You’re going out, you’re finding resources, you’re generally doing that in a bit of a reactive manner. A client will come and say, “I need this resource with five years experience, 10 years of experience,” you go and find them. And that certainly is a big part of what we do as a company.
But several years ago, we realized that we were starting to see a pretty significant trend in the marketplace. The demand curve continued to go up into the right, so to speak, and the supply curve was going quite the opposite. In fact, it reached a point where at any point in time, and kind of thinking about this pre COVID, you were dealing with over a million open IT jobs at any point in time in the US. The US was creating 200,000 net new IT positions, net new, every year, and we were only graduating somewhere around 80,000 MIS or CIS degree resources. But that was one challenge.
Of course, we had the H-1B program, but that would allow you to bring up to maybe 85,000 additional resources, but we can all do the simple math and realize that that’s not equal to 200,000. So, we were seeing real challenges. We weren’t able to find the talent that we needed, there were new and emerging skills that were coming out at a pretty fast pace. And even in those that were out in the marketplace, you weren’t able to find those resources with the specific skills that clients wanted.
Then we realized we could either do two things. One, we could spend more money on job boards, on recruiting costs, we could open up a center maybe in the Philippines or in India to help us with sourcing, but even then, we were still fishing in the same pond. And so we said, “Maybe it’s time to change that.”
And it’s not usual for a staffing company to think about shifting its model and actually creating talent, because we have been built around an economic model that’s very different. But in Talent Path, what we do is we literally create talent, right? And so we go and we work very specifically with universities. We find top graduates. We can talk a little bit more about the quality and the chemical makeup of what makes a good candidate. And then we put them through an immersive usually three to four month boot camp, where they are coming out of there with very specific skills that are in the highest demand for our clients. So, we’re launching the careers of those individuals in one respect, and we’re creating very specific, skilled resources for our clients, and we can do that in a much more cost effective manner.
And the beauty of it is we’re hiring those individuals, so they’re getting a full paid salary, full benefits, they’re not paying for the training as part of that. And that then allows us to find the best graduates to launch their career without putting on additional student debt. And we think it’s a really unique model.
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Great IT workers can be found outside college MIS and CIS programs
Bill Detwiler: So, what were you not seeing coming out of, I guess, the universities and colleges that you in the talent pool… you were talking about MIS, CIS graduates, but it seems like there was maybe a disconnect between the skills that people were coming out of even traditional four year programs and being able to translate that knowledge into an in demand job. Was that the case or no? I know I wanted to ask you about the types of people you look for, and maybe this is a really good segue. So, are the types of people that you pull in people that have already been through some type of higher education? Are they people with like military service, or maybe they had a career in logistics, but it wasn’t tech? Maybe that’s a really good way to sort of combine those together.
Kip Wright: Yeah. And I’m going to pin the first part of your question and come back to it because I think it’s really interesting to ask the question, “Why aren’t they coming out with those skills?” So, let’s come back to that, but let’s talk first about the candidate pool.
So, we aren’t necessarily targeting graduates that have MIS or CIS degrees. And I know that may sound surprising, but if I go back to this story in terms of the 80,000 that are being graduating from collectively universities, you’re not creating net new, you’re only tapping and qualifying those even further. So, what we generally do is we partner very closely with the STEM colleges inside of our university partners. We embed our recruiters so that they’re working with the professors, they’re working with, not just career placement services, but they’re on campus, and we’re actually giving training back. So, we offer pre hire kind of seminars or courses where they can come in on a Saturday, they can learn about the tech field and learn more about what that might mean for them.
But business degrees, engineering, math, sciences, those tend to be the ones that we are finding the best traction for. We eventually would like to get to a point where we’re able to hire liberal arts graduates. That is something that we all have to do more to prepare them to be able to take on those, but they don’t necessarily have to be that MIS or CIS degree profile.
Now, the other thing that we’re doing, which we think is really unique, and frankly, is now very conversational in the environment that we deal with, with a lot of the social justice and social equality and balance that we’re focusing on, is we recognize that when you look within the tech sector, when you look within the tech sector, if you look at it from a race perspective, you have whites and Asians that overwhelmingly dominate that, and black and Hispanics represent less than half of their relative percentage of the population in the tech field. So, there’s a real opportunity to address the diversity balance within that. And then the flip side of that is the gender piece, where you have three out of every four jobs within technology, and I think it’s even higher when you look in the leadership roles, actually go to men versus women.
And so what we try to do within our hiring profile, we’re looking for the right cognitive skills, we’re looking for the right balance, the right educational background, but we’re also trying to find and hire a disproportionate mix of minorities and females, because we know that our clients are looking for solutions that help them address that. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t hire non-minorities or men, but it just means that if we can tweak that a little bit and target more aggressively, we can, with intention, help address a social problem as well as a technical candidate need.
Bill Detwiler: Okay. So, let’s go back to that university question, because I think, like you said, it ties together. And you kind of mentioned it there when you were talking about cognitive skills, what are those measures that you look for in candidates? And are you primarily working within colleges and universities, or you also work looking outside of that maybe as people who are doing retraining, coming out of another job into the IT industry?
Kip Wright: Yeah. So, we actually are building, if you will, a network of partnerships to allow us [inaudible 00:08:22]. Universities is the first one that’s obvious because we can get to resources that we know have a certain profile, we can target them. But frankly, we’re talking to some other groups and building partnerships in those.
There’s a group out there called The Mom Project, which helps kind of retool, retrain and hire moms who stepped out of the workforce but want to get back in it. We’re talking to a new group that just got announced recently called Skillup, which is trying to help displaced resources or individuals from this COVIT crisis, and we think that that’s an interesting source for us. Year Up is another example of it. So, we’re looking at a lot of different avenues. We’re in discussions with, in fact, working with the US chamber of commerce. They have a program with the Department of Defense so that we can go after and help bring veterans in. So, as a veteran finishes their years of service and they start looking to where their career can be in the civilian population, how can we help that? And so that’s another avenue that we’re exploring. We think it’s going to take all of those things, and we think that we can serve a much broader audience if we do that.
You asked the question about universities. That’s one I want to kind of come to because I think this is a really interesting one. I’ll give you a story that I think will encapsulate it. I was talking to a Dean at one of our university partnerships, and she said to me, she said, “Hey, it’s funny you’re here because I just got through talking with the CTO of this large oil and gas company,” who was asking them to build a program around data analytics. And I said, “Well, tell me about it. That’s interesting, because we graduate data analysts. How long is it going to take you to do that?” So, she thought about it. She says, “Yeah, well, it’s going to take us probably six months to build the curriculum, and then another six months we’re going to have to test that out and make sure we get the approvals. And then once we launch that curriculum, it’s going to take, probably for them to complete that, three semesters, because they’re not going to be able to take all those courses at one time and they got the build on it.”
So, I said, “So, two and a half years from now, you’re going to be able to graduate people with data analytics skills, and my guess is you’re probably going to focus on what? Tableau and Power BI?”http://www.techrepublic.com/”Yeah.”http://www.techrepublic.com/”Okay. Well, what about Snowflake? What about Spotfire? What about the next evolution of technology around that?”http://www.techrepublic.com/”Yeah. I don’t know. We’re going to have to realign that whole program.” Well, my point is they’re not equipped to do that. And I don’t expect them to be able to do that. And what I try to tell our university partners is we’re not trying to replace what you do, we’re trying to supplement it. We’re trying to create that last mile so that you produce really amazing, well-rounded students with certain technical or skills expertise, and then we can help bridge that gap so that organizations can find the talent that are very specific to their needs and we can turn on a dime and we can do that much quicker and much more flexibly than maybe a large institution could do.
IT professionals and companies need a mindset of life-long learning
Bill Detwiler: It’s really interesting to hear you say that. As someone who’s been taught in college, taught in universities myself part time as an adjunct faculty member, who’s worked to help universities build new programs, you see the lag between when you want to start something and when it takes to bring it to actual fruition and start graduating students with those skills. So, I’ve seen first hand what you describe. And I wonder what your thoughts are on a rethink that a lot of colleges and universities have been having, which is, how do you balance that need to produce people who have general analytical, cognitive skills, problem solving skills, a general set of knowledge versus just job skills, right? There’s this constant argument whether you take people from a liberal arts education, and we’ve given them really good skills in terms of communication abilities, and mathematics, and within philosophy, or in economics. And these are great pieces of knowledge to have to have a more informed population and to have people be able to make, hopefully, good decisions and have a life of learning, but they may not have those specific jobs skills.
So, I’m curious, like you said, you see yourself as supplementing that. Is it just structurally impossible for universities that you think to actually do both together? And so are we really headed towards a future where there has to be this public private partnership, where universities are set up to do really great things around that base level education, and of course, research and cutting edge kind of research around technology, things like that, but they’re not as great at providing very specific job skills, especially in a fast moving industry like technology?
Kip Wright: So, it’s interesting you ask that question, and we can do an entire section on this, so I want to be real careful not to get too far on this. And I want to start off by saying that our university partners provide an amazing value for the individuals or the graduate, so let’s start with that. But we are dealing with a system that’s hundreds of years old, that is created around an economic model. There’s a very specific economic model that works for them, and so the ability to concentrate and gain and deliver these services across this four year period is something that systematically I think they’re going to have to rethink, right? And I used to draw an old graph where I would say, okay, here’s how it works. You go and get an education, and then that stops, and then you come up here, and then you go on your career path.
What I actually think what you’re going to start to see is a bit of a cycle or enjoyment, if you will. You’re going to get your education in in a burst manner, very specific to the skills, and you get experience. And then you got to go back and get… And so it becomes a lifetime of learning and employment. And I think until we can figure out how we do that from a university perspective, that model is going to struggle. And I think you’re going to see the emergence of that. I think you’re going to see people start to embrace that. I think you’re going to see more trade skills or universities in the private sector that are able to bridge that gap, and I would really be anxious to see how some of the more flagship universities can figure out how to do that. They are doing that now through partnerships, but I think that’s an important piece.
There’s another piece that I think is really interesting too, because you were talking about liberal arts. And when you talk specifically about technology, here’s what’s really interesting, right? Because of the emergence of technology, and because so many of these tools have come, and the ability to integrate, and the cloud, you actually see a shift from the type of resource that you need with technical expertise, from the old heavy code to what’s now being used as low-code, no-code. And what does low-code, no-code really mean? It means that you understand the functionality within a technology, and you have the ability to then leverage that technology to solve, in this case, a business challenge. And so what you then need is the skill not to be able to program and create that, but the skill to be able to talk to a business user and say, “Tell me your problems, tell me what you’re trying to achieve and let me help get this technology to work for you.”
So, the funny thing is we are actually seeing that our clients who hire, especially in the experience side, if they find a resource that comes from a liberal arts background but has learned the technology, they’re amazing because they can talk to the customer and understand those business challenges, and then they can transition that and translate that into how the technology solves their solution.
Bill Detwiler: And I think that’s so true. I’ve talked to so many people involved with training and involved with education and tech hiring, and being able to find somebody that has the skills to be able to translate the technical into the practical and talk to a BU [business unit] about helping them solve their problems is valuable. And you see a lot of that, maybe even more of that than you do in the marketplace than sort of, like you said, hardcore coding and the hardcore engineering. And I say that as someone who started as an engineering and mathematics major.
So, let’s talk about some of those specific skills. I think this is a great segue. What are some of the skills that people who are going through the Talent Path program now are learning?
Kip Wright: Yeah. So, I’m going to break that answer into two parts. The first is I’m going to answer very specifically, what are we teaching them? So, our training, because of what I just described, actually balances two things, right? So, we have the technical training that’s very specific. And so what we’ll do is we’ll train them on a base set of technical skills, technical disciplines, and then we’ll enhance that with very specific technology applications or platforms or whatnot. So, that’s a big piece of it and a significant part, but it is the EQ skills, if you will, the softer skills that we also have to teach. And in particular, when you’re dealing with people coming from a college setting, and it’s not to in any way indict the last generation or universities, but the work readiness, they’re not necessarily being taught, and so you have to really try to drive and teach that, right? So, that’s what we’re teaching within it very specifically, and that’s the framework.
Now, if you talk about what technologies are in the hottest demand, that’s a different thing, and we can obviously plug and play, and we do a lot of that. But what I see, and actually I see COVID has accelerated that, is that there’s really three or four things that are out there that are driving that. First, is absolutely cloud, right? So, cloud is driving a very different approach to technology to help businesses use that. The second is big data. And big data, it’s just overwhelming in terms of the implication that it’s having, and I’ll speak to that in a minute. Security is absolutely a big piece of that, right? So, you see those three things out there as kind of themes that are there.
We are seeing, very specifically, COVID is driving companies to, if you will, through their digital transformation. And I don’t want to get too deep into that, but the premise of this drive from digital transformation is that their customers are now looking to engage them and to buy from them in a very different way. I mean, we’ve just created the biggest social experiment on remote work in the history of mankind, right? And so it’s not going to go away and it’s going to have profound, far reaching implications. So, companies are saying, “I need to figure out how I get my services to my customers, how I engage my customers in a different way.” And so that whole cloud, that whole pushing things back out from the web in a mobile perspective becomes really important.
But the other piece of that is the big data where they’re saying, “Okay, but to do that, I need to figure out where my customers are and how they’re buying.” And so all of a sudden, big data becomes this amazing thing that they’re like, “I need to get the analytics. I need to understand that, I need to see the trends.” So, we’re seeing data visualization, data management, data science, we’re seeing business analytics, again, that taking of a business user or an in-users challenge and solving it technically, we’re seeing that as an overwhelming demand in the marketplace right now. So, that’s probably one of our hottest skills that we train on.
COVID-19’s lasting effect: More remote workers means companies can broaden there hiring pools
Bill Detwiler: Now, you touched on, a couple of times as we’ve been chatting, COVID-19, the pandemic, and the acceleration of a company’s digital transformation plans, of the effect that it’s had on remote work. I’d love to hear your insights on what the future of work is going to look like with this increasing trend to people being able to hire employees who aren’t necessarily in a specific geographic location, right? And you kind of touched on this earlier, it’s something I’ve talked with a lot of people about, which is, it opens up the doors to hire a more diverse workforce because you can recruit from anywhere in the world, anywhere in the country. So, there’s a lot of opportunity here that’s still shaking out. There are some big shifts.
It used to be, “You need to be in San Francisco, in Manhattan, in London, in Singapore, in Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago,” in a large urban center to be able to sort of… companies had offices and headquarters and they wanted to have people together, but COVID has kind of turned that on its head as everybody’s working remotely now. Beyond sort of those technologies like data analytics, and cloud, and sort of those digital transformation technologies, beyond that, going to just the overall thinking of companies about where they need to have their people physically located, what are you hearing from your customers?
Kip Wright: I mean, you absolutely hit it on the head, and I want to kind of acknowledge that. When we saw the shift? I’ll give you our situation. March 16th, we turned on a dime. We literally had training for all of our consultants with in-person. We have four training facilities, L.A., Houston, Atlanta, DC, and guess what we had to do? Everything’s virtual. So, we had to pivot, we had to figure out how to deliver that, we had to shift, and here we were lamenting the fact that, “When can we get them back into the classroom?” What we realized is, “Oh my God, we were able to do this. We were able to do this in a profound way.” We actually found ways to create the right level of engagement. So, back tomorrow, we have another virtual happy hour with one of our cohorts, and I’m going to join in. And everybody gets together, and then you get in these different rooms, and this is the topic here, and this is the topic here.
So, we figured out how to adjust to it. And what we realized is, “Oh my God, now I can actually change the profile of who I recruit.” I love that, because we were just speaking on diversity where I was speaking and moderating a diversity and inclusion panel yesterday, and that very subject came up. Do we think now with the rethinking of work location, that it changes the availability of diverse talent? And the answer is absolutely yes. I mean, it opens the aperture in a profound way. So, I think we’re going to see that. We’re already looking at what does this look like post COVID? And in fact, if I could tell you to short any stock, I’d be shorting REITs, right?
Bill Detwiler: Yeah.
Kip Wright: Real estate is going to be a huge challenge because companies are going to say, “I don’t need…” they’re going to say they don’t need half that space.
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Bill Detwiler: Yeah. And we see the same thing, which is, you have the overhead of a building, and you have the cost of the building itself. Everything that we’ve heard from folks say that… when you talk to CFOs, and you talk to C level executives, is this rethink in terms of needing a physical presence. I don’t think any of them have ever said like, “Yeah, it’s totally going to disappear,” but it is going to be much smaller, or it could be much smaller. Because what this has done is, even for teams… and I’ll add to your story a little bit. Our team works remotely quite a bit. We were already set up for that and it wasn’t that much of a transition. You get a few things that are headaches, but you learned over come those. But if you were set up for that or you had a business plan that was kind of a digital transformation plan that was already in process, you already had some remote work, as long as you could speed that up and accelerate that, then you did pretty well. So, 100%, that’s what we hear too.
I’d love to hear what you think may be the future of tech hiring and the tech jobs market looks like. What do you see, because you’re in this day in and day out, maybe two, three years down the road? Is it an acceleration of things that are happening now? I mean, there’s always that black swan event that you couldn’t foresee, but what do you see a few years down?
Kip Wright: It is exactly that. So, again, give you a great example within us. We are already planning that post COVID when we’re able to actually reopen our offices, and we’re in phase one, so people are allowed in there in a voluntary basis, with masks and all of that. But what we see is we’re going to implement a flexible work location approach where we probably say, “Look, if you’re in a certain location, let’s get two days or three days in the office, and let’s ask our leaders to facilitate their meetings around that where proximity is necessary or maybe more put better, valuable, then let’s use that.” But we’re going to change our space, which probably means half the space. We’ll probably do a two or three day remote work structure, which means I can do half the space, which means my office space is going to change to more of a hoteling concept, right? And so I think that’s going to continue.
It’s interesting. We’re already seeing, from us, graduating students or consultants within our Talent Path program as a great example. We have a class that’s graduating in Atlanta and one that just graduated in Houston. They’re working for clients that are in L.A., and in San Francisco, and in New York, and the clients have said, “I don’t care where they are.” Before this crisis, they had to be in L.A. or they had to be in New York, but all of a sudden now they’re, “I don’t care.” So, I think that’s going to accelerate. I think we are looking at that black swan event and I think it’s going to continue to accelerate. I have talked to so many CEOs that say the same thing. They challenge their CFO, “Figure out how we sublease the space.” They challenge their facility group, “Rethink the structure of it.” We’re all looking at that and saying, “This has to be the wave of the future.”