Mind the (IT talent) gap

Demand for skilled tech workers far outstrips supply. To bridge this gap, many companies have started to recruit and train workers from underserved communities.

IT skills gap

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the ESG issue of Workflow Quarterly.

While on deployment to the Japanese island of Okinawa, U.S. Navy petty officer 3rd class Joseph Laudon found out that his military career would be over in 20 days.

After his honorable discharge, Laudon says he struggled. He had been a navy aviation mechanic and tried to transition into civilian work, but floundered. He faced personal challenges as well; in 2017 Laudon lost his house and went through a divorce. “I had no plan,” he says.

While in the Navy, a fellow sailor told him about a tech job he’d lined up post-deployment. This was on Laudon’s mind in 2019 when a ServiceNow recruiter reached out to him on LinkedIn to see if he was interested in breaking into tech.

“I had no idea what ServiceNow was,” says Laudon, laughing. “I grew up dirt-road poor in Texas. I was a farm kid. But I knew I wouldn’t have to work out in the heat all day. I could potentially work from home and be around my kids.”

I went from being on food stamps to making $85,000 a year in my first job.

Accepting the offer required a leap of faith. Laudon had remarried and he had a newborn son. Six months prior, the family had been unhoused. But Laudon decided to go for it. He left his home in Maryland and traveled to Philadelphia, where he went through a 10 week program—eight hours a day—learning basic coding and Now Platform admin skills.

Former Navy petty officer and NextGen participant Joseph Laudon and his family

When he finished the program, he got a job as a technical manager working with ServiceNow clients. Soon, Laudon had enough money to start his own consulting firm. “I went from being on food stamps to making $85,000 a year in my first job,” he says. “Now I make well over six figures working for myself. That’s unheard of where I come from.

Bridging the gap

The lack of tech skills among the workforce is becoming a major problem for business. According to McKinsey research, almost 9 out of 10 business leaders believe they have, or will soon have, a serious gap between the digital skills companies need and the existing skills of workers.

The rise of enterprise automation has only exacerbated this problem. Many organizations are deploying AI-powered tools for routine tasks that were once performed by lower-skilled workers. The trend increases the demand for highly skilled workers to maintain these systems at the expense of lower-skilled positions, according to Kathleen Carson, a senior research analyst at the Seattle Jobs Initiative.

The tech-skills gap has especially affected applicants from historically marginalized communities. In response, businesses and nonprofits have created new programs designed to equip candidates from these communities with the tech skills they need to succeed.

ServiceNow is one of several tech companies working to attract overlooked workers—such as veterans, mothers returning to work, and refugees—to write code and work in IT. Its NextGen Professionals Program has so far trained more than 6,700 people. The program hosts hands-on digital training sessions, ServiceNow technical training sessions, and professional development workshops at colleges and universities.

In 2021, ServiceNow was one of more than 30 companies that joined the Tent Coalition for Refugees to train Afghan immigrants in skills they would need to start new lives in the United States. The organization recently launched a similar effort to help fleeing Ukrainian refugees.

This year, ServiceNow hired a director of racial equity to prioritize helping Black Americans, displaced communities, and indigenous Australian populations to find jobs. NextGen senior director Kristen Knepper Bahbahani says goals for the program are no less than “achieving racial equity, achieving gender equity, and ending intergenerational poverty.”

Unlike many company-sponsored IT training programs, NextGen ensures participants have a job at ServiceNow or a partner when they finish the program. This kind of employer investment in training is rare, says Carson. Usually, workers have to seek out and pay for IT skills training themselves.

A renewed interest in training

ServiceNow is not alone in hosting an in-house IT training program for underserved talent. Gap launched This Way Ahead in 2007 to provide low-income families with jobs training, and Kaiser Permanente is partnering with the Workforce Development Council to create opportunities in the healthcare industry.

Nonprofits are also jumping in. California-based Bitwise, for example, trains thousands of students throughout the country to code. More than half of participants are women or people of color, and 40% live below the poverty line. Another organization, Per Scholas, has paired with more than 100 companies and foundations to train and secure jobs in tech for 16,000 students—mostly people of color—after completing a free training and professional development program.

NextGen leader Bahbahani says IT employers have historically been reluctant to recruit from underserved communities. “This is a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue,” she insists. “If employers are not more introspective and aware of their biases, we’re not going to move the needle.”

Last year, ServiceNow joined the U.S. Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program. SkillBridge provides hands-on job training to active-duty service members so they can secure a job in tech when they leave the military. Since the program expanded into SkillBridge, Laudon has been encouraging every vet he knows to participate. “Seeing the program now, the way it’s grown, is honestly a dream come true,” he says.