A Radical Idea For Fixing the Talent Gap In Tech


NewCo Shift Forum 2018/Ignite Series

The gap between skills and opportunity is widening beyond resolution. Susan Mernit at Hack The Hood has a new plan to fix that.

Susan Mernit is co-founder and CEO of Hack the Hood, a Bay-area non-profit organization that works to address the needs of low-income young people of color disconnected from the economic mainstream of tech-informed jobs in the Bay Area and across the region. Mernit spoke at the annual Shift Forum earlier this year, in the Shift Ignite series (full overview is here).

Susan Mernit: Hey, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m Susan Mernit. I’m the co-founder and CEO of an organization called Hack the Hood. We work with low-income 18 to 25 year olds of color in the Bay Area. We introduce young people to careers in tech, the skills they need, and how to get on a pathway for that training.

Our young people are resilient and amazing. They have so much ability, but there’s such a disconnect with where they are, where the future of tech is, and the future of tech hiring. I want to tell you that in many ways the future of work is broken.

We have young folks who are resilient, eager to learn, and on fire. When they go through Hack the Hood programs, they go from being people who use their phones to people who understand what coding is, know what tech jobs are, and are eager to enter the workforce.

When they get through with us, they’re moving on to a coding boot camp, a community college, an alternative apprenticeship program, and to better-paying part-time jobs that allow them to go to school.

They’re not the top talent that tech companies are looking for, the Ninja engineer JavaScript master who is at the top of his game. They are mid to entry-level workers, and that is a serious disconnect.

My folks need jobs in tech. They can bring them along, can take the skills with their learning and help them get to the next level. We need to do it while they’re in school, while they’re working, and while they’re juggling many, many family responsibilities.

They don’t want to be working at McDonald’s doing the soul-sucking jobs that don’t take them anywhere. They want to be working in your companies. How do we change the paradigm to make that possible? What do we have to do differently to tap into this growing workforce of people who have incredible potential, but they don’t have a lot of experience?

My radical idea is that we actually change how we think about top talent. What if top talent wasn’t only the people at the top of their game, who are ready to jump in and solve your problems? What if they were the people who had the potential to become top talent?

What if they were the people that you could invest in, you could train and bring along, who then would deliver for you in the most amazing way? I’d like to see tech companies change their hiring policies, resort to recruit people that they can grow and bring up, as well as people who are just ready to jump in. If we want to have a more diverse workforce, that’s the critical thing to do.

I also think that it’s a good business practice. So many companies already have internal training programs, but just don’t acknowledge that they need to create broader opportunities for people who are earlier down the path.

Two of the companies that we work with, Adobe and LinkedIn, are leaders in the field. At Adobe, the digital academy brings in alternative candidates, people into a coding boot camp program. They go from that into being apprentices. These apprentices who come into Adobe, 70 percent of them get full-time jobs.

Only 40 percent of our traditional college graduates make that cut, 70 percent of the alternative candidates. At LinkedIn, you see the same thing. The REACH program brings in all kinds of people who are military vets and gives them opportunities. They move into highly technical roles.

My suggestion to you, if you’d like to tap into the workforce of the future, is you redefine your whole idea of top talent. You start to think about, not only people who are ready to solve the big problems you have, but the people who have the potential to become stars in your company, but just need to come in at an earlier stage.

I want to emphasize that this is not just a problem of race. This is a problem of class. People who go to community college, people who are low income, people who do not have the ability to graduate in four to five years, they are not the people who always can do the internships and jump in at the level that you may be looking for today.

If you don’t make a place for these people, you’re missing out on a huge potential. If you came to Hack the Hood and met our students, you’d want to hire them. They’re bright. They’re talented. They’re resilient. They’re persistent. They’re innovative. Look at that face. Isn’t that a future software engineer?

They really are the people you want, but you have to start to do things differently. You have to change the way you recruit. You have to change the way you assess potential. You have to change the way that you’re investing. If you do that, I think it will really pay off. If we don’t, we’re not going to bring people out of poverty.

We know that the path out of poverty are good jobs, but if we don’t offer that path to people, the future of work will be broken. Thank you.


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