3 Training Programs That Bring Diversity to IT Workplaces

Aspiritech, Skills Inc. and Workforce Opportunity Services help people with diverse backgrounds develop skills to meet today’s IT needs.

By Jennifer Redovian

By Jennifer Redovian July 25, 2019

There’s a vital need for diversity in corporate America. Just ask the growing number of companies baking diversity and its cousin, inclusion, into their recruitment programs. The business case is compelling, particularly considering the widening IT skills gap, which could see 1.8 million tech positions left unfilled by 2020.

In addition, according to a research arm of Deloitte specializing in talent strategies, most highly inclusive organizations: generate 2.3 times more cash flow per employee, produce 1.4 times more revenue, and are 120% more capable of meeting financial targets.

Such business results are hard to ignore. That said, where can companies find the job candidates that will enhance their corporate diversity and inclusion programs—and their bottom lines?

Many companies turn to organizations that groom technology talent from underserved and previously untapped resource pools, such as military veterans and disabled workers. These individuals get the specialized training they need to enter the corporate workforce and be immediately productive.

So says Dr. Arthur Langer, director of the Center for Technology Management at Columbia University, who in 2005 founded Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS), a nonprofit that connects leading companies with a pipeline of early-career individuals from underserved populations and post-9/11 veterans. Since 2005, WOS has trained and placed more than 3,800 individuals in 65 corporations.

“Underserved populations and veterans need to be on equal footing when they join the workforce,” Langer said. “Our program not only prepares them to hit the ground running within a company, but also helps them build their self-confidence and esteem, which is key for them to successfully integrate into the workplace.”

Harnessing Veterans’ Skillsets

WOS partners with universities and colleges throughout the U.S. to create academic curricula that align with real-world corporate objectives. Langer said individuals in the WOS program are handpicked and trained to fill roles requested by companies that partner with WOS to find job candidates. The majority are in IT, and include programming and design, cybersecurity, project management, services, operations and business support among others.

“The commitment to personal learning and growth that we see in these individuals is off the charts,” said Warren Kudman, CIO of Turner Construction, a WOS partner company for more than six years.

Employees collaborate

The first company to pilot a partnership with WOS was Prudential Financial in 2005. Five years later, when unemployment among post-9/11 veterans was two percentage points higher than the U.S. national average, the chairman at Prudential assembled a team to do something to address the problem. The result was a modified WOS program that focused predominantly on post-9/11 enlisted veterans.

Prudential uses the WOS program to develop employment sourcing opportunities in many U.S. regions with strong veteran talent potential and good labor cost differential, said Dele Oladapo, vice president and chief technology architect and innovation officer at Prudential. For example, the company set up an operation in El Paso, Texas, near the Fort Bliss Army post.

Together with WOS, Prudential trains not only veterans in El Paso but also military spouses. Oladapo noted that nearly half of the 250 people at the El Paso site are either veterans or military spouses.

Johnson & Johnson is another long-time WOS partner with a focus on helping veterans. Many veterans have military experience and training that’s relevant in a corporate environment, said Dan Zelem, the company’s CTO.

“They come with a level of discipline that you’re not going to get with most young students who haven’t entered the workforce yet,” he said. “It’s a unique advantage that veterans bring to the table.”

Matching Disabled Workers to Critical Jobs

Similarly, individuals on the autism spectrum bring special skills to their employers, and efforts to improve their employment prospects are actively underway.

Some individuals on the autism spectrum, for example, can concentrate for long periods of time on repetitive tasks and quickly spot details that others can’t, said Ed Hammond, IT manager at Skills Inc. in Washington State. The nonprofit, in business since the 1960s, aims to employ 60% to 70% of disabled workers out of a 600-person workforce.

Hammond said some autistic individuals’ ability to focus in these ways makes them great candidates for jobs such as software coding and debugging, hardware testing, manufacturing, and parts assembly.

“The thing about people with autism is that their brains work differently. And in terms of software, they work better,” added Brad Cohen, a founding member of Aspiritech, a fast-growing Chicago-area company that focuses on hiring people on the autism spectrum for software quality assurance testing.

Employers have to make some special accommodations for these diversity relationships to thrive. Both Skills Inc. and Aspiritech provide complete training and on-the-job coaching. Emotional support can come from colleagues, supervisors, as well as on-site social workers and autism specialists, who are trained in helping employees adjust to the expectations of office life, Hammond and Cohen said.

Bridging the Talent Gap Creatively

These are just a few examples of the initiatives that help companies creatively plug IT skills gaps and build successful diversity and inclusion programs with well-trained and highly prepared candidates. At the same time, individuals who once struggled to find employment that matched their education and strengths are now getting new opportunities for lucrative and rewarding futures.

Jennifer Redovian is an independent technology writer in Silicon Valley. Her roots are in the networking industry.

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