(This article appeared in the Huffington Post on July 6, 2012.)
Finding people with the right skills is a continuous battle for tech startup companies, which are producing most of the new jobs nationwide.
Tech job openings persist
My state, Massachusetts, ranks fifth in the nation on a list of states which are not producing enough graduates to fill tech job openings. Worse shortages are seen in California, New Jersey, Texas and New York.
On the job board Dice, there are 24,728 tech job openings in these states, up 17 percent over last year. Boston alone has 3,808 openings, up 24 percent over last year.
While the shortage might be a magnet for talent from outside the country, it is a governor on growth of companies inside.
Our government’s response? If Startup America is any indication, it is to encourage more people to start new companies, a sure recipe for intensifying demand for H-1Bb visas to hire foreign workers.
University entrepreneurship courses typically prepare students to create new companies, not to become early employees of startup companies. But every founder and co-founder of a new tech company needs three to five marketing, sales and product development employees to get the company off the ground.
The tech talent shortage has prompted state government in Massachusetts to launch a workforce development study, followed by a series of summits to discuss challenges and options.
The tech industry can’t wait. The situation is so pressing that one group of investors recently created the Boston Startup School, a non-credit six-week summer school program to prepare students for entry level positions in its portfolio companies.
But most students we know are anxious to get a job to start paying off their loans. Why should they have to take more classes to be qualified for a job?
The real solution is a partnership between the universities and companies to get our young people better prepared to contribute to startup companies. But there are practical challenges:
1. Not every student wants to jump into a risky, early stage company. How can we better help them understand the career pathways in startups?
2. Second, if a recent grad does have the interest and skills, such as familiarity with Ruby on Rails, or Salesforce, they taught themselves with extracurricular projects. Can we integrate some of this learning in the university curriculum?
3. And third, even with the required skills, students are not prepared to hit the ground running as part of a startup team. Can we offer a ramp-up period to socialize students to the startup environment?
What We Are Doing
Here is what we are doing to meet these challenges at the UMass Boston Venture Development Center, in collaboration with the tech industry, community colleges and state universities, and under Entrepreneur in Residence Dan Phillip’s leadership:
Hold weekly workshops where students learn about marketing, sales and product development career paths.
We guest lecture in engineering and management classes, and entice students to a workshop. At the workshop, we explain that if a student performs well, they are likely to be hired at another startup if the one they work at goes belly-up and they can advance all of the way to running marketing or development, or even be the CEO.
Align and revise university curriculum related to marketing, sales and product development to create a pipeline from two-year to four-year public universities to tech startups.
Why state universities and community colleges? They are filled with students who are purposeful, driven, unentitled, and know how to handle adversity. They are the type of people startups like to hire as entry-level employees.
Place students in company-paid internships in venture-backed startups throughout the year so students learn vital skills by working along side more experienced employees.
Seventy three percent of our 96 marketing, sales and product development placements have received full-time employment at the venture-backed startup with their internship being an influential factor. Internships are a great way for students and employers to try each other on for size.
We’ve only been at this for a few years, have learned a lot and there is much we can do to improve the quality of training and preparation we provide as we scale up. But we’ve learned enough to start thinking about how to offer our program online nationwide.
According to Jeff McCarthy, Partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, and an advisor to our initiative: “The hope is that a program like this truly can fuel the workforce engine required to launch the next generation of startups.”