Digital Skills: Creating Pathways to Opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a fundamental shift already underway toward digitalization of workplaces and workflows across the regional and global economy. The rate at which employers have adopted and integrated new technologies is increasing. So has the reliance on data to optimize output and productivity and to minimize cost.
This shift means many workers will need to enhance and develop the skills necessary to keep pace with these shifts – and to be successful. Companies are finding themselves in need of talent with the necessary skills to succeed in today’s digital economy, while at the same time workers are seeking meaningful, rewarding work.
General Assembly (GA) was founded in in 2011, when the country was coming out of the last recession and recession and tech startups were rapidly emerging, traditional companies were seeking digitally skilled talent, and opportunities for people to acquire new skillsets to pursue careers in these sectors were not widely available. The pioneering educational organizations is known for helping people transform their careers, specializing in the day’s most in-demand skills and for embedding networking opportunities, mentorship and other activities that propel students toward employment.
Tom Ogletree, General Assembly’s vice president of Social Impact and External Affairs, shared during an October UpSkill Works Forum called “Digital Skills: Powering Houston’s Future!” how General Assembly builds programs to meet both employer and workforce needs.
“Being able to see both sides of this talent marketplace has really given us a front row seat to some of the evolutions that have been happening as all companies are becoming to one degree or another tech companies,” Ogletree said. “Digital skills are required for categories across sectors, across disciplines, and that there needs to be a reimagining of the ways that people acquire new skills to stay relevant in a really dynamic labor market and a very rapidly changing economy.”
GA stays in tune with market needs to ensure that the skills it teaches have real market value. Its in-depth courses help individuals build skillsets and capabilities in areas like product management, data analysis, and user experience (UX) design, and it offers programs to help people completely pivot into tech-based careers. Its experiential and immersive courses are taught by industry practitioners who bring field experience and context to the classroom and are portfolio-driven to allow students to work on the types of projects they will be doing once they graduate and so that graduates can demonstrate the skills they’ve developed through their own work, Ogletree said.
The organization’s more basic programs and workshops are designed to help introduce people to a “digital-first” mindset and some of the necessary skills to understand whether they would be a good fit for a type of tech-based careers before they make the commitment to enroll in an in-depth, and much longer – and more expensive (although subsidies and scholarships are available) – course, he said.
GA works with employer clients to build in-house tech talent, too – particularly employers that might not seem like tech companies but are increasingly in need of digitally skilled talent. Fewer than a quarter of Houston’s net tech workers – workers in technical occupations or for a “tech” company – are in technical occupations at “tech” companies, and more than 60 percent of tech workers in Houston work at non-tech companies, according to Partnership analysis of the Computing Technology Industry Association’s (CompTIA) Cyberstates 2021 report.
GA also works directly with employers to build digital academies to reach untapped talent: for example, it partnered with Adobe to build a fully subsidized program to bring members of under-represented populations into its tech workforce – the program leads to apprenticeship opportunities with the company. It is currently working with Accenture to source candidates for an applied intelligence/data science and analytics apprenticeship in Houston.
General Assembly’s dedicated career coaches work with students throughout their coursework and beyond graduation, helping them think about how to position their personal brands or previous experience and prepare for interviews. General Assembly boasts a 91 percent placement rate of students within three months of graduating and close to 100 percent within a year, Ogletree said, though he acknowledged that these numbers are likely to show decline during the recent labor market fluctuations.
“If the value proposition that we provide to students is that you're going to get a job at the end of this, we need to make sure that your whoever hires you is very satisfied,” Ogletree said. “When we work with large scale enterprises, we're trying to make sure that they're really seeing a return on investment on trainings and investments in their own people.”
When BakerRipley sought to pilot a program to help adult learners without experience break into tech fields, it turned to General Assembly. The organization was drawn to General Assembly’s approach, which embraces what the whole student for success and retention, including wraparound services through social supports and employment coaches, financial options that provide true access for income-constrained students, strong outcomes in obtaining employment, and cohort learning for social skill building, according to Cara Baez, BakerRipley Center for Excellence Senior Director.
A cohort of about a dozen students are currently working through a BakerRipley tech bridge program, where they’re learning technical and soft skills to prepare them for General Assembly’s in-depth education program.
GA’s student support is key, say BakerRipley’s Director of Learning and Workforce Initiatives Angela Johnson and Mobility Coach Diana Delgado. GA’s ability to allow students to “try-on” careers helps them make informed decisions about committing to an educational pathway toward a particular career. Its career support lets students “on-ramp” while they’re in training and minimizes any gap between course completion and looking for (or finding) a job.
What’s more: “They have a really robust post-training service that is connecting students to real jobs and real employers,” Johnson said. “Every tool students need for placement is available to them with General Assembly.”
“They go into this pathway knowing they’re going to be supported all the way,” Delgado added.
UpSkill Houston is the Partnership’s nationally recognized, employer-led initiative that mobilizes the collective action of employers, educators, and community-based leaders to strengthen the talent pipeline the region’s employers need to grow their businesses and to help all Houstonians develop relevant skills and connect to good careers that increase their economic opportunity and mobility. BakerRipley is an UpSkill Houston initiative partner.
See all previous UpSkill Works forums here.