Most technology companies claim a shortfall in qualified employees, despite persistently high levels of unemployment. Despite employers’ complaints about the education system, college students are pursuing more vocationally oriented course work than ever before, with degrees in highly specialized fields like pharmaceutical marketing and retail logistics. However, companies do far less training of new employees than they did in the past, expecting them to “hit the ground running” when the join the organization. Most apprenticeship programs have disappeared, along with many management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand. The shortage of opportunities to learn on the job helps explain the phenomenon of people queueing up for unpaid internships to get access to a situation where they can work free to get access to valuable on-the-job experience. Interestingly, only about 10% of the people in IT jobs during the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s had IT-related degrees.
Community colleges in many states have proved to be good partners with employers by tailoring very applied course work to the specific needs of the employer. Candidates qualify to be hired once they complete the courses—which they pay for themselves, at least in part. For instance, a manufacturer might require that prospective job candidates first pass a course on quality control or using certain machine tools. Going back to school isn’t just for new hires, either; it also works for internal candidates. In this setup, the employer pays the tuition costs through tuition reimbursement. But the employees make the bigger investment by spending their own time, almost always off work, learning the material.
Many companies rely primarily on buying the talent they need, often at a high premium and with marginal retention rates. Most technology companies develop a “make-buy” strategy that included both buying key talent to fill immediate gaps and utilizing a longer-term approach of developing highly capable leaders. Companies recognize that the leaders they need to meet the demands of the more challenging world of the 21st century would have to be cross-functional, people-centric leaders. Technology companies today are global, and their development programs must focus on high-potential (HIPOT) early career leaders across the company and across all major functions, ranging from college graduate, entry-level communications, contracts, and finance recruits to Master’s-level graduates in business development, HR, information technology, and supply chain. Programs that are built around a development curriculum that includes experiential learning in the form of rotational assignments, executive-level involvement, and functional and cross-functional learning opportunities are the ones that have the most likelihood of succeeding.