Connecting Industry to Talent in the Digital Age: A Look at the Greater Boston IT/Tech Industry

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Guest written by: Philip Jordan, Economic Advancement Research Institute (EARI)

The U.S. economy is a complex and dynamic system within a global framework of goods and services. Through each boom and bust cycle, our economy has evolved, facing new global competitors and harnessing the creative and destructive power of technology. In the 21st century, this evolution has led to the intersection of the digital age and the human age; an age where repetition and consistency have given way to creativity and innovation, and skilled human capital fuels growth.

Today’s workforce can seem unrecognizable from the post-war production-based labor force that dominated 20th century America. The decline of manufacturing jobs, driven by offshoring and robotics, has reshaped the middle class. White-collar jobs have grown dramatically and the power (and size) of cities has grown with them. Repetitive-task jobs have been replaced by those that require significant critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical ability.

These changes have already had tremendous consequences. Economic mobility is low – if you are born in the bottom 20% (or top 20%) of households by income, you are more likely than ever to remain there as an adult. Inequality is rampant, with most job growth limited to degree holders. While the gap in real wages is narrowing nationally (most wage growth is offset because it’s occurring in high-cost areas), the economic reality for non-degree holders in high cost areas like Greater Boston is crushing. Not to mention, race and socioeconomic status are becoming indistinguishable in economic data.

These new realities suggest that a bedrock principle of the American Dream – the ability to achieve entry into the middle class through hard work – is slipping, or as the Pew Charitable Trust puts it “the ‘rags-to-riches’ story is more often found in Hollywood than in reality.”

The basic contract between American society and its workers has changed along with our economy, but many of our systems are stuck in the past. Most of our education and training systems are still responding to a production-based economy. Our assessments reward memorization and recall, rather than locating and evaluating information and thinking critically. We largely think of technical skills as fixed, linear, and associated with specific occupations – when the reality is that most employers seek individuals with combinations of skills that they use as tools to solve problems and create change.

There is perhaps no better example of the digital and human age nexus than Information and Communications Technology (ICT) – particularly in Massachusetts, a national leader in this sector. Headlined by software, enterprise solutions, and big-data, the Bay State supports more than 150,000 mathematics and computer occupations, representing about one in every 25 workers in the state. These high wage ICT positions are concentrated in Greater Boston and are growing faster than the average for all other jobs in the state. Yet employers report significant talent shortages across a wide range of positions. So what’s the issue? A variety of things, actually.

While the opportunities are significant, the barriers are as well. Misaligned educational requirements, insufficient focus on critical thinking, and a distinct lack of diversity threaten the growth of the industry and limit shared prosperity for employers and workers. EARI’s research, commissioned by SkillWorks, digs into the substance behind these barriers including: employers using college education as a proxy for other traits (e.g. problem solving, critical thinking, etc.), and specific concerns relative to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in the Commonwealth’s ICT sector.

Our in-depth research has been compiled into a report that will be released at a forum on September 16th: the First Greater Boston IT/Tech Forum. This forum is the first in a series of three that will mark the beginning of a greater dialogue on how to narrow skill gaps, increase diversity, and provide greater opportunities in ICT for all Massachusetts residents. We’ll need to address difficult issues, including racial segregation, gender stereotypes, access to college, outdated state and federal policies, and social biases. To succeed, we need an authentic dialogue with all voices present. Together, we can build upon the Bay State’s existing success in ICT and expand the pipeline of talent to the benefit of our businesses, communities, and residents. Keep an eye on SkillWorks’ website, blog, and social media for regular updates and follow the hashtag #GrtrBosTech to join the conversation!

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Philip Jordan is the Executive Director of the Economic Advancement Research Institute and Vice-President of BW Research Partnership, with offices in Massachusetts and California.  His work focuses on the impact of talent on economic prosperity and sustainable communities, and his personal passion is developing solutions that provide expanded opportunities for the most difficult to serve populations.

Mr. Jordan has extensive experience studying the innovation economy, in particular, clean energy and ICT.  He has authored dozens of reports including The Solar Foundation’s annual Solar Jobs Census, the Natural Resource Defense Council‘s American Wind Farms Report, Solar and Wind Labor Market Analyses for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, statewide clean energy studies for nine states, and numerous local reports for workforce boards, community colleges, and municipalities.  He recently published a book with El Sevier on the global solar industry.

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