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Stop Looking for Tech Talent in All the Wrong Places

As the need for skilled tech workers skyrockets, former federal CIO Suzette Kent argues organizations including state and local governments should start recruiting from less traditional pipelines.

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As an election year looms, the Biden administration is moving forward with historic investments in technology and infrastructure. Housed within major bills like the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, these infusions of funding are already sparking growth in the semiconductor industry and — more recently — have led to the creation of 31 “tech hubs” across the country.

While these efforts are admirable, they’re also facing concern from pundits and policymakers that the country may not be moving fast enough to train people on the skills needed for these jobs. As federal CIO, I saw this issue firsthand in areas of cybersecurity and data science, where the workforce demand significantly outpaced supply.

That story is playing out again in the fast-growing field of AI. Both the public and the private sector recognize that a skilled workforce is a critical part of building a stronger national economy, but they are relying too heavily on historical — or “traditional” — pathways of education to create a workforce that was needed yesterday. In order to both quickly expand the number of people in the tech workforce and advance the skills of those already working in the field, we need to leverage pathways that advance curriculum and skills development in weeks and months, not years.

Today, the challenge has, if anything, only become more acute. One recent survey cites a cybersecurity workforce shortage of some 3.5 million people worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States. Another found that nearly six in 10 tech leaders report not having the talent to meet their digital transformation goals. And the rapid advancement of AI has left companies scrambling to figure out how to use the capabilities and how to reshape their workforce accordingly. The Biden administration may have recently called for a “governmentwide AI talent surge,” but at a time when not enough workers are being trained in AI skills, it’s hard to imagine either the public or private sector being able to keep up with this level of demand using legacy approaches to talent development.

Of course, new challenges and pressures can often spark creativity and push organizations to change. But in both the public and private sectors, organizations are still relying on the same strategies to solve for talent demands. They’re recruiting from a small handful of universities, poaching from their competitors (which in turn drives up costs), and — particularly in the case of cybersecurity — requiring significant experience even for entry-level roles. Simply put, that is like racing a horse and buggy against a rocket ship.

Keeping up with the pace of change, and preparing the U.S. workforce for an increasingly tech-driven world, will require a new approach. It will require companies and government agencies to look within and think differently about the untapped potential of the workers they already have to fill the tech roles they so urgently need.

Consider, for instance, what might be possible if more organizations looked to their own workforce as a pipeline to address their cybersecurity talent needs. IT help desk workers and call center employees are already building the skills of diligence, detail orientation and communication that are critical to success in cyber roles — not to mention their familiarity with the culture and approach of the organization. By providing those workers with on-the-job training in the fundamentals of cybersecurity, cloud or AI, businesses can not just save on recruiting costs, but also build a stronger and more sustainable talent pipeline that leads to improved retention over time.

New approaches to training, too, are showing promise as a way of helping both public and private sector leaders reimagine how they look for tech talent. The Biden administration’s recent cybersecurity apprenticeship sprint helped 7,000 apprentices in the field get hired and increased racial and gender diversity. At SkillStorm, where I serve as an adviser, recent college graduates and returning veterans learn the fundamentals of high-demand fields like cloud computing and data analytics before being placed at major companies in critical technology roles. Although these people may have only a passing familiarity with the tech industry before they begin their training programs, by the end, they’re prepared to be productive employees at some of the world’s biggest companies — and most of them end up being hired full-time.

The pace of technological change isn’t likely to slow down any time soon, and too many organizations are still stuck in the horse-and-buggy approach to talent development. The good news is that there are a growing number of examples of what these new approaches to talent can look like. The remaining question is whether businesses and government leaders alike will be able to put those approaches into practice — and create new pathways to fulfill the potential of a stronger and more resilient tech workforce.

Suzette Kent is the former chief information officer of the United States.