Sally Chiu graduated from the University of Houston Bauer College of Business in spring 2018, armed with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems. But in a tight job market, she quickly learned potential employers had set the bar beyond her reach, seeking new hires with two to five years of experience for seemingly entry-level positions.

She needed deeper training in several technologies — R, Python, and JavaScript programming, as well as Tableau and Power BI to translate data into compelling visuals. And she wanted more practice in presentation and communication in a professional setting.

She found her pathway through Talent Path, a technology training and staffing organization that was then just a startup. Talent Path helps new graduates — especially women and people of color — jump-start their careers in the tech field, where the workforce is now predominantly male and most often white or Asian.

Working with universities to recruit and hire graduates as consultants, Talent Path provides an immediate job with a full-time salary and benefits. And instead of incurring more student debt to bolster their tech skills in a pricey bootcamp, Talent Path consultants are paid to learn for the first three to four months, after which they are assigned to a company.  Between assignments, they continue to be paid by Talent Path, which provides a safety net for two years. 

Strada invested in Talent Path’s parent company, Genuent, to support new models of integrating learning and earning.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to get that first step into the corporate world, the big ‘adult world,’” Chiu said. “As you come out of college, the world is pretty scary, and I was a bit intimidated. But Talent Path actually helped me boost my confidence to be able to sell myself and market my skills.”

Zoe Sullivan, director of consultant engagement at Talent Path, said consultants’ two-year commitment, including training and working, allows the social impact organization to recoup part of its investment to recruit and train the next cohort.

Talent Path currently employs 105 consultants in four cities: Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. So far, 57 percent of consultants are electing to continue as Talent Path employees beyond their two-year commitment, while 40 percent go to work for the businesses where they had been consulting, securing salaries ranging from $65,000 to $90,000 per year. Others move on with their careers elsewhere or head to grad school.

Sullivan said employer expectations of new hires are rising, especially during the pandemic as more experienced displaced workers have flooded the market. And the move to remote work has persuaded employers they can be more flexible and, unrestrained by geography, access an even larger talent pool.

“We’ve seen upward trends in employer confidence that they can wait for the ideal employee,” she said. “At the same time, we have a growing number of graduates seeking employment this spring and many 2020 graduates who, upon graduating in the pandemic, met a tough job market and are also still seeking.”

Recruiters, though sometimes desperate to fill tech positions, often place still more barriers in front of job candidates through screening requirements that demand more experience than is even possible, Sullivan said: “We’ve had companies advertising jobs for people requiring three years’ experience with a certain technology that has only been in existence for one year.”

Talent Path works with its employer clients to understand what specific technical and professional skills they are seeking, trains graduates in those skills, and puts them onto a high-demand, well-paid career path.

“We need to supplement theoretical instruction in higher education with real-world, industry-driven training that sets grads up for success in the job market while truly meeting employers’ most urgent talent needs,” Sullivan said.

Sometimes students get that hands-on training in college through internships and classroom projects; other times they realize too late what specific technical training they need, she said. And with technology changing so rapidly, even higher ed institutions devoted to keeping up and providing their students with a career-relevant education are challenged to rewrite curriculum fast enough. 

Raji Aiyer, who directs employer relations through the career center at the University of Houston’s business school, agreed, saying that while her institution works closely with employers to understand their skills needs and offers intensive technology instruction in the latest software, it’s often difficult to pivot and recruit and hire instructors quickly.

Internships make a big difference in providing students with hands-on learning in specific technologies and access to professional mentors who can help them launch their careers, but they are competitive, she said. Many students lack the networks or professional connections to secure internships, and low-income students often are working to support themselves and have less flexibility to accept an internship, especially if it is unpaid.

“Sometimes even a really great student doesn’t pursue an internship,” Aiyer said. Or they do, but realize through that process that they want to take their studies and their careers in a different direction. Likewise, as students near graduation and get serious about the job search, they may identify a job they want but realize too late that they should have taken a specific course offered at the school. 

Sullivan said Talent Path hopes to engage more closely with colleges and universities moving forward, to network with students and to consult with institutions on supplemental technology training they could direct students to, during college as well as after graduation. In the meantime, here are five things she recommends higher ed do to engage with employers and support students:

  • Partner with companies or organizations offering short-term training pathways directly tied to industry needs. These organizations are set up to be agile where traditional education systems cannot be.
  • Build curriculum based on the latest, industry-relevant skill trends, books, and research. Staying up to date on cutting-edge technology trends and how they support major industries will make a college degree more relevant to students because it will more closely align to their career plans.
  • Take 100 current job descriptions and extrapolate in-demand skills. Being aware of the job market and the skills students will need to demonstrate upon graduation will help educators adapt and build new curriculum or connect students with complementary bootcamps and other training programs to meet their needs.
  • Involve employers in the classroom. Bringing local employers on campus for industry talks or engaging with businesses to enlist students in addressing real-world challenges through course projects not only gives students an opportunity to practice their technical and human skills but also helps them build relationships that will help them secure references, internships, and job offers.
  • Integrate emotional intelligence and team-based projects as a constant in the undergraduate learning experience. “We take groups of consultants through this learning journey in small groups where they are dependent on collaboration in order to achieve project outcomes,” Sullivan said. “This is much more reflective of the real-world work environment than solo learning.”

Following her training through Talent Path, Chiu was assigned to a large food service distribution and marketing company for a six-month project she described as “a great experience.” Still working for Talent Path, she is now assigned as a business analyst to an electric utility company. 

“A huge part of my strengths are in connecting with people, and this has given me the opportunity to slow down and go deeper into my technical skills training but also to focus on translating that tech language into business-friendly terms, to explain to leadership what the data we are seeing means for the business,” she said. “It has been a great path for me.”