Five Questions With: Jen Hetzel Silbert

Jen Hetzel Silbert
JEN HETZEL Silbert is the employer outreach and engagement leader at TechHire Rode Island. /PBN FILE PHOTO

Jen Hetzel Silbert is the employer outreach and engagement leader at TechHire Rhode Island, an initiative of the national nonprofit Opportunity@Work to connect employers with local IT talent.

Silbert spoke with Providence Business News about TechHire’s progress over the last year and its plans for the future.

PBN: It’s been a year since TechHire Rhode Island’s launch. What impact has the initiative had so far?

SILBERT: Launched by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo in partnership with Opportunity@Work, we’re making Rhode Island home to the country’s most inclusive tech-talent marketplace. We are an ecosystem builder helping employers find outstanding tech talent, and overlooked job seekers get the training and connections they need to start successful technology careers.

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In its first year our network has:

• Doubled expected job placements through training partnerships like Year Up, Tech Force, coding school General Assembly and many more (204, exceeding the 2016 goal of 100), establishing TechHire RI as a valuable channel for companies to hire from;
• Built an employer network of 180-plus companies willing to mentor, interview and hire from TechHire RI;
• Launched a beta platform for sourcing and skills validation of job candidates;
• Created multiple, blended, higher-education and accelerated-training pathways to expand the number of employable software developers in R.I., including two new computer science minors in a partnership with Commerce RI and the University of Rhode Island;
• Worked with Commerce RI on business attraction, helping to create the case around our state’s tech talent as an attractor for three blue chip companies (GE Digital, Virgin Pulse, Johnson & Johnson) to make Rhode Island their home.

PBN: As TechHire’s lead on employer outreach and engagement, what needs do you see in Rhode Island’s tech industry that aren’t being fulfilled?

SILBERT: Rhode Island colleges and universities graduate under 400 computer-science-related degrees each year, and yet Burning Glass shows over 1,200 open IT jobs posted in the Ocean State in the past 60 days. Further, CEB estimates that over 40 percent of unfilled tech positions can be done without a four-year degree (i.e. software developers, tech support specialists, network system administrators). So does Rhode Island suffer from tech-talent deficits, or do our hiring practices suffer from tunnel vision?

We believe these jobs are hard to fill because companies are screening quality talent out that we can help them screen in. And, we believe that not enough people have access to the most relevant training that can get them prepared for these jobs. Our focus is on getting underrepresented and overlooked people into unfilled entry-level IT jobs. We’re starting with software-developer roles because there’s a lot of them, the salaries are lucrative, and job seekers can be trained for them in accelerated ways. Most companies I talk to agree with this, yet adoption of this belief requires a deliberate shift toward “validated-hiring” practices (e.g. screening talent for skill/aptitude, versus when/where someone went to school).

PBN: TechHire touts its partnership with GE Digital as a big success. Is GE an exceptional case because of its size and adaptability, or can any tech company benefit from TechHire’s recruiting practices?

SILBERT: When GE Digital first arrived, they hired one-third of their first Rhode Island hires through TechHire Rhode Island and our training partners. GE Digital’s hiring requirements are well-aligned to TechHire’s focus on inclusion and hiring based on skill mastery. Further, GE set a 2020 goal of hiring 20,000 women into STEM roles and obtaining 50:50 representation for all technical entry-level programs. TechHire’s partnership is a natural fit for helping them get there in a manner that screens in quality candidates that other companies may screen out.

GE Digital is joined by many Rhode Island companies, big and small, that aren’t just TechHire employer partners but champions, true innovators committed to being the change they want to see in growing the local talent pipeline inclusively. Other very actively engaged companies include Johnson & Johnson, Kenzan Media, Envision Technology Advisors, Worldways Social Marketing, Carousel Industries, Mojo Tech, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, and Datarista, to name a few.

To be clear: The demand for quality tech talent spans every Rhode Island industry, not just tech companies. TechHire employer partners from across sectors are helping grow the local tech-talent pipeline, and in many ways: by hiring TechHire candidates for their skill (versus academic pedigree); by sharing the specific tech skills for which they’re hiring, or “bat signal,” which informs local training offerings from our education partners; by sharing feedback on and mentoring TechHire candidates, reviewing training partner curriculum, and sharing best practices in skills validation and recruitment.

PBN: You recently wrote a blog post for TechHire about what you call the “awareness gap.” What is the awareness gap, and what does it mean for employers looking to fill jobs?

SILBERT: We believe gaps exist on both ends of the labor market. For job seekers, there’s an absence of tools supporting their ability to effectively showcase their talent. Our employers, further, need visibility into a wider pool of candidates who have the skills to do the job. Employers looking to fill tech jobs are wise to examine how their recruiting methods (job descriptions, screening algorithms, etc.), might inadvertently screen out quality talent as a result of the lack of these tools, and embrace “validated-hiring” methods for sourcing, attracting, assessing and developing skilled technology professionals. Just as technology is evolving at unprecedented rates of change, so do our hiring methods need to evolve.

PBN: What are TechHire’s next steps? Do you have plans for more large-scale partnerships like GE Digital going forward?

SILBERT: Opportunity@Work is building a national inclusive hiring marketplace where any employer, big and small, can hire talent into skilled career paths, education providers can access and use up-to-date information about skills and knowledge most in demand at a granular/local level, and where any individual is supported to learn/explore/master the skills to be TechHired. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is the chair of our Opportunity@Work board and will be a leader in this national movement. And thanks to Gov. Raimondo and our partners, Rhode Island is positioned to be a national leader in building robust and inclusive talent pipelines. This places the local tech-talent pipeline as a driver of business competitiveness and innovation, inclusive economic opportunity, and the attraction and retention of both business operations and talent to the state. When it comes to TechHiring, the future has arrived – to the Ocean State.

Kaylen Auer is a PBN contributing writer.

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