With the technology industry changing faster than ever, companies need a workforce that can evolve just as quickly. But how can these companies develop a pipeline as agile and versatile as the workers they hope to employ one day? And how can private and public sector partnerships build future-proof workforce development programs by tapping into their communities?
Our VP of Government & Workforce Partnerships, Priya Ramanathan sat down to discuss this problem with Kelly Martin (Head of Strategy & Operations at M&T Bank) and Sarah Tanbakuchi (President & CEO of TechBuffalo). They fleshed out lessons they’ve learned, particularly from the hard-working graduates that made up their first Data Analytics cohort. Keep reading to get crucial tips for rethinking your candidate pipeline.
Q: What do employers face as they work to attract tech talent?
Kelly Martin: There’s a real disconnect from the supply and demand side of hiring tech talent. Whether you’re a small business or a larger company, there’s an absolute race for talent—but a constraint on supply. If we fail to prepare for the evolving workforce in the years to come, our industries will not survive.
Tech companies can become very specialized, even while training can remain scarce. We’re lucky—at least in Western New York—to be in a resurgence of sorts, and you can feel the energy by being here. But the community in Buffalo is a microcosm of the industry at large and faces the same challenges.
Q: How can employers overcome these challenges?
Sarah Tanbakuchi: A huge part of our strategy at Tech Buffalo has been employer-led, employer-driven, and employer-designed. Employers need to come to the table, not only when defining the curriculum but also developing processes for robust interviewing and thoughtful onboarding.
For our Data Analytics Boot Camp pilot, we brought together five employers from five different industries who had identified their need for entry-level data analytic talent. And with M&T’s Tech Academy and General Assembly, we put together a like-minded “coalition of the willing” to think about how we can develop talent.
In December 2021, along with General Assembly, we had already debuted the Western New York Tech Skills Initiative. This allowed us to develop trust, and a pipeline, for community groups and members who want to upskill. Going forward, building and maintaining that trust with various stakeholders is crucial to our success.
“Think about how to get folks into training, get them through it, and help them transition into a job. This is all for naught if there isn’t the opportunity to upskill into a career.”
Q: How to accommodate a community unfamiliar with tech?
Sarah Tanbakuchi : We brought Human Resources and our data analytic professionals into the same room. This already challenges the existing systemic HR processes! We had to get everyone on board with shared expectations, like how to define competencies. This kind of tight connectivity allowed us to move further and faster than we may have otherwise.
Kelly Martin: Our twelve-week pilot program attracted 19 learners, who all graduated. Seventy percent found work within three to four months of graduating. And this required a few things:
- Trust. We built our program intentionally, with agile methodologies crafted to give the cohort the support they needed to thrive. This made the learners trust that we’re the right program for them. The course structure is designed to make approaching an unfamiliar-to-tech position easier.
- Skills. The program focuses on teaching students specific skills like Python, advanced Excel, and Power BI. These skills are what they need to get a job after the program. And at the end of the twelve weeks, each individual also presented a final independent project to the employer groups and leadership to put themselves out there.
- Support. Each student received immersive, in-depth training with career advisors. We also took surveys at the end of each Friday to implement their feedback. The surveys made it a two-way process where we could get more data on how to improve and bring the best for the learners.
Sarah Tanbakuchi: Our cohort ranged from 19 to 50 years old students. One-third of them identified as women, and 40% as people of color. They came from backgrounds of food service to corrections to higher education. The employers also stepped up to provide a cash stipend to make these groups feel secure in the new surroundings. Among other initiatives, we had a partner who donated lunch, and we provided gas cards after the program. These were all necessary steps to ensure the students could focus on their learning.
Q: How can you retain employees from non-traditional backgrounds?
Sarah Tanbakuchi: We need to be more thoughtful to build a more inclusive onboarding experience. Some companies, for example, treat graduates as their tiny cohort, take them out for lunch, and integrate them into the company’s culture. While employment remains a big goal, companies have just as much invested in retaining their hires.
Kelly Martin: Companies also put a lot of work into developing training pipelines with career progression in mind, but one size doesn’t fit all. We need to work with community groups to design different pipelines for different personas. Then we must keep that momentum to leverage the connections we’ve worked so hard to build.
Sarah Tanbakuchi: Employers can hire from a few sources: experienced workers (who often already have jobs), university programs, or non-traditional pipelines. But our community partners described training like a treasure hunt, where no one knows where to find resources. And yet, non-traditional employees have the most potential for growth—not only for themselves but for the second-tier Rust Belt cities like Buffalo.
Kelly Martin: You also have to find folks deeply committed to this work, understand the journey, and will invest their time and energy. They also need to recognize that this isn’t your traditional business model: it’s a long-term investment that changes both the community and the organization for the better. I’ve had graduates of this program look me in the eye and tell me that this program changed their life for the better.
Q: What can other regions learn from their success?
Sarah Tanbakuchi: Making these programs employer-led is essential. Start with a few local companies first, so you can coordinate regionally to eventually attract global talent. Start the process with a pitch deck and conversations.
We learned the importance of language when setting expectations and describing the program. The benefits of a tech job might seem self-explanatory to us! But our language can feel intimidating and unapproachable to those on the outside.
Kelly Martin: Approach this work with resiliency. It will take twice as long as you think, and the mountains you have to move are three times larger than you expected. Building trust with communities takes time.
“The work we do does not spread if we keep it a secret.”
Interested in this work? Here’s how to get started:
- Create an employer-led and employer-driven program: Get everyone on board. Bring employers to the table so they can have a significant role in everything from the curriculum to interviewing to onboarding.
- Develop trust: Assemble a network of mutual support from the community who will provide you with your future talent.
- Build inclusivity by removing barriers: From stipends to free lunches to gas cards, you’re working to attract workers with very little exposure to tech. They face structural factors that throw up real barriers to learning.
- Retain trained employees: Investing resources in training employees to be tech-oriented will only work if you have a strong system of retaining them in this volatile market.
- Just do it: Everything has to start somewhere. And while building a workforce pipeline from the ground up will be more complex than you imagined, hang in there and believe in the work.
Interested in learning more about community reskilling programs? Get in touch.