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TechSF: Cultivating a Home Grown Tech-Sector Workforce

Posted on 01.30.2015

Female Computer Sciences

From social media to mobile applications to cloud-based computing, technology permeates our daily lives in often unprecedented and rapidly changing ways. But, says Patrick D. Mitchell, Program Manager at San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), “There’s a major shortage nationally of workers with advanced tech skills. Employers are doing everything they can to fill positions, including recruiting from other companies or going overseas.”

In San Francisco, where an explosion of innovation in the city’s tech sector has fueled acute demand for local talent, many local tech-sector employers are having difficulty finding qualified candidates. Meanwhile, many local jobseekers — especially those displaced by the Great Recession and the long-term unemployed — are frustrated that tech opportunities seem out of reach, with no clear pathways into the industry.

Enter TechSF, an information technology (IT) workforce development initiative that provides local unemployed individuals and incumbent employees with education, training, and placement and support services in high-need/high-growth IT industries and occupations. Launched in 2012 through two U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) grants awarded to WestEd and the San Francisco OEWD, TechSF targets job seekers traditionally underrepresented in the IT sector, especially the long-term unemployed, women, minorities, and veterans.

“TechSF is built on a dynamic partnership between San Francisco’s private and public sectors,” says Ursula M. Bischoff, TechSF Managing Partner and Senior Program Associate at WestEd, “allowing us to tap into multiple streams of expertise to develop pipelines into the IT workforce.”

By collaborating with and brokering communication among local businesses, community and four-year colleges, city agencies and offices, researchers, and community organizations, TechSF provides a continuum of education, training, and wraparound services to help local residents enter the workforce and advance in their jobs. To help sustain and expand the initiative beyond the initial DOL grants, OEWD, which coordinates San Francisco’s public workforce development system, has secured and leveraged a range of additional federal and state funding.

Empowering the local workforce

A trained but out-of-practice print designer, Marissa Mossberg held several jobs over the years — a nonprofit program manager, an elementary school teacher, a waitress, and an arts education administrator — but her passion had always been design. For some time, she wanted to get back into the field, but her skills had become outdated, and she wasn’t quite sure where to start.

“Since I attended art school, the field had shifted from print design to digital design, and I wasn’t familiar with all the digital platforms,” says Mossberg. “I also needed help navigating a move from the nonprofit to the private sector.”

After meeting a TechSF representative at a networking event and learning more about the program, Mossberg realized it might be what she needed to kick-start her version 2.0 design career. She became involved in an intensive 4-month, 14-hours-per-week TechSF course called Digital Directions. In addition to helping her master key graphic-design software programs like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign, the immersive class gave Mossberg and her fellow classmates plenty of practical, real-world experience — including developing a marketable portfolio with real client work and learning how to brand themselves to stand out in a competitive design market.

Mossberg is part of a large and diverse group of local residents taking advantage of the targeted training and support that TechSF has to offer. Participants are earning industry-recognized credentials and degrees for free, and acquiring work experience qualifying them to enter and advance in IT career pathways, says Bischoff. “It’s exciting to collaborate with OEWD in this effort to engage industry leaders, educators, and workforce professionals to create training pathways toward new opportunities for people in San Francisco.”

Halfway through the two DOL grants, the initiative has served well over 1,100 participants, hundreds of whom are from groups underrepresented in IT careers. “The initiative is adding diversity at all levels,” says Mitchell, TechSF’s Program Manager, “from age and gender to minority populations.”

Coding boot camps — a way to help participants quickly build computer-programming skills — are a case in point. “We recently started offering them as a way to increase diversity,” Mitchell says, “and we’re specifically targeting groups underrepresented in IT.” TechSF conducts outreach through community organizations to actively recruit women, veterans, people of color, and others who might not be aware of IT career opportunities or who might think that an IT job is unattainable.

Building on San Francisco assets

Citing “incredible growth” in San Francisco over the last few years, Mitchell says the TechSF initiative is achieving economies of scale and creating networks that didn’t previously exist.

TechSF’s public-private partnership includes several major local organizations, such as City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), IBM, AT&T, and a consortium of other San Francisco employers and community-based organizations who all play a role in creating pathways into the IT workforce. WestEd facilitates conversations and gathers data to help create an ongoing feedback loop to ensure that the training and coursework offered by TechSF — through partners like City College and BAVC — correspond directly to current industry needs. This agile approach to gaining real-time labor market intelligence is a necessity when trying to match the breakneck speed of change in the IT sector, says Bischoff.

Through TechSF, industry leaders IBM and AT&T also provide training to their incumbent workers — allowing them to retain and promote talent from within rather than having to recruit higher-skilled workers from abroad (one of the DOL grants that launched TechSF seeks to reduce local employers’ dependence on H-1B visas, which U.S. employers use to hire specialized foreign workers when they are unable to find local talent).

In addition, WestEd convenes an education pathways working group, lending the agency’s research expertise to pinpointing and addressing barriers — like the dearth of female and minority IT teachers — that affect access to or completion of IT training programs, particularly for underrepresented groups. Through ongoing input from key workforce systems stakeholders, the group helps align and coordinate activities across secondary, postsecondary, and workforce systems to help build comprehensive and sustainable IT talent pipelines.

Landing the job

TechSF not only supplies training in the tech skills needed for high-growth IT occupations — like network programming, web development, and multimedia — it also helps participants develop the “employability skills” needed for landing the job, says Bischoff. “A major part of this initiative involves helping participants learn how to build confidence, engage clients, identify niche opportunities, and present themselves as adding value.”

To that end, mentoring, portfolio development, internships, and job placement assistance are all woven into the menu of training options — helping to ensure that once participants gain the necessary IT skills, they also have the savvy to market themselves to prospective employers. For instance, in addition to upgrading her tech skills through the digital design course, Mossberg took advantage of other TechSF workshops like Leveraging LinkedIn and Nailing the Phone Interview. “The piece I found most helpful was meeting with a counselor to practice skills like job interviewing and negotiating,” she says.

TechSF also helps bolster the prospects of its participants through regular networking events like Nerd Underground. “With Nerd Underground, we create a setting where job seekers, employers, and educators can connect, and program participants can practice their elevator pitches and learn about job opportunities,” says Mitchell.

While TechSF works with major tech organizations like Microsoft and LinkedIn to develop and implement community engagement and local workforce recruitment plans, the initiative has also seen higher-than-anticipated job-placement success with smaller tech firms and non-tech companies, many of which take part in their networking events. “Because small tech firms are lean, they often have urgent and compelling hiring needs,” says Mitchell.

Such was the case for Mossberg, who, after multiple interviews and offers, accepted a position as a production artist at a small interactive ad agency where she is now working exclusively on Apple accounts. “This is a huge step,” says Mossberg. “This position will launch my career from a freelance designer to a designer with Apple corporation credibility.”

Moving forward, the initiative will continue to focus on the long-term unemployed, who face multiple challenges and are often harder to reach, says Bischoff. “Many are older, may have a range of financial or personal challenges, or are underemployed in lower-skill jobs — and not actively seeking opportunities,” she says. “Their confidence may have been undermined from long spells of unemployment and the associated stigma, as well as changes in the skill sets needed in the current job market.”

While building the necessary skills and know-how to land a job is often daunting, the support offered through local workforce development initiatives like TechSF can prove invaluable. “A career change can be a hard, lonely, arduous path,” says Mossberg. “TechSF helped give me the tools and the confidence to get the creative job I wanted.”