With the economy potential on the edge of recession and vacancies in the tech industry still on record highsmany technology executives across the country are flashing back to a similar set of economic dynamics from two decades ago.
In the years between the dotcom crisis and the Great Recession of 2008, companies experienced a degree of economic uncertainty that would not be unknown today. Back then, offshoring dominated the headlines, and as they looked for ways to cut costs and increase profits, a growing number of companies looked abroad for new sources of talent.
I saw this shift firsthand as a senior IT leader at a large company in the early 2000s, when we adopted a strategy to fill open positions with temporary workers in India and other countries.
Faced with a rapidly increasing need for technology skills, we were looking for talent everywhere, and looking abroad, developed as the best way to grow as cost-effectively as possible. At that time, companies did not fire local employees or outsource every job. But like many of our colleagues, we have certainly paused our growth in the US to focus on other markets.
That level of offshoring had a significant impact abroad and contributed to substantial economic growth in other countries. But it also made an impression at home.
In the mid-2000s, the number of computer science graduates in the U.S decreased dramatically, not least due to the perception among students and families that those desirable technical jobs were filled by workers from other countries. Although only a small percentage of jobs were actually offshored in the early days, the story was powerful enough to deter people from pursuing those jobs — or the training pathways to access them.
In fact, it was so powerful that a group of business leaders and education organizations in my hometown of Cincinnati responded by forming a local coalition, the INTERalliancespecifically designed to rebuild tech talent in the region.
In other words, within a few years we were investing in fighting a story that we ourselves had helped perpetuate.
Today I am no longer in charge of the technical staff of a large company. But my work serving the diversity challenges of technology puts me right in the middle of talent conversations with tech leaders in various companies who are re-starting formal projects to “rethink” their approach to recruiting.
What’s troubling is that while a lot has changed in the past 20 years, these recruiting projects seem eerily familiar. Often it involves actively partnering with temp agencies to bring in more outsourced talent, or even – again – offshoring and targeting H-1B visa holders.
None of these are bad ideas per se, but a lot has changed in the last ten years. The search for a turnkey and more cost-effective source of technical talent in the mid-2000s was a viable response to controlling costs at a time of growing demand. There were few alternatives.
Today, we know more about the long-term effects of underinvestment on US engineering workforce growth. And now we’ve already developed solutions across the country that promise immediate and long-term benefits for businesses and workers here at home, while eliminating a repeat of the backlash from the offshoring practices practiced decades ago.
For example, we know that millions of workers in the US use the… skills to succeed in technical roles but are constantly overlooked by employers pushing for four-year degrees. We know that faster, cheaper alternatives to the bachelor’s degree can help aspiring technology professionals master the skills the current job market needs — and that those alternative routes can lead to transformative pay increases.
We know that regional coalitions of employers, training providers and civil society – in cities like buffalo; Houston; and Louisville, Kentucky— can both counteract regional economic stagnation and create more opportunities for people to obtain satisfying, family-supporting jobs.
And we know that the rise of remote and hybrid working is enabling companies to expand access to quality jobs for workers across the country, rather than just in traditional tech hubs.
Yet many employers have still not changed their hiring practices to recognize the potential of these other pathways, or to hire employees known as STARs (proficient through alternate routes). Too many companies choose the strategies they know—looking abroad or stripping talent from their competitors—rather than investing the time and energy needed to build a strong and sustainable tech workforce within the U.S. economy.
Again, those strategies aren’t bad in a vacuum. But if we pretend that they are the only answer to this supply-and-demand challenge, we close the door to opportunities for millions of Americans who could gain access to some of our economy’s highest-paying and most future-proof jobs.
The good news is that some forward-thinking organizations have decided to look for new solutions to solve the shortage of technical talent. Huge companies like Accenture and IBMas well as the state governments like Marylandremove degree requirements from job descriptions and recognize the potential of hiring, training and supporting STARs.
It’s time for more companies to do the same.
More companies have the opportunity to amplify their pipeline of technology talent while also creating pathways to economic mobility for the workers who need them most. Given that black, Hispanic and female STARs face disproportionate barriers To create new opportunities, creating new avenues for these workers will also help companies address the urgent need to build a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
If they don’t pursue these new approaches, we know exactly what will happen – because two decades ago we saw the impact of offshoring and underinvestment by the community. If we choose to learn from that experience and invest in the people and programs in our own communities, we can accelerate the growth and diversity of America’s tech workforce and avoid repeating this conversation ten years from now.
Julie Elberfeld is a senior advisor for [email protected] and a former SVP of Capital One.