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B Stephens started tinkering with computers as a child and dreamt of being a software engineer. But, lacking the high maths and science grades required by most university coding programmes, Stephens instead settled into a career in wine sales.

“I spent several years of my career after college doing everything around software engineering that wasn’t software engineering,” Stephens says. “I thought I was not smart enough to do this.”

But when the opportunity came along in 2018 to do a six-month software engineering apprenticeship for communications platform Twilio, Stephens jumped at it. The programme was designed to train people with no previous experience for roles on Twilio’s product teams, to which Stephens was eventually recruited.

Twilio is among a growing number of US companies offering to train new starters and career changers, like Stephens, in skills that previously would have been a prerequisite to secure a job. A recent survey of hiring managers by training platform TalentLMS found that 67 per cent of companies expected to increase their learning and development budgets in 2022.

B Stephens benefited from software training at Twilio
B Stephens benefited from software training at Twilio. ‘I have a career now, and I did not have a career before’

Through these upskilling programmes, both new joiners and long-serving staff can gain expertise in areas such as data fluency, machinery operation or, like Stephens, software engineering.

Business leaders see such schemes as a potential solution to their recent struggles to hire and retain staff. Employers in the US have long warned of a “skills gap” where many workers lack qualifications for fast-growing segments of the job market.

Upskilling programmes first gained popularity as a way for businesses to bring available workers up to speed. Many companies adopted them as Americans were slow to return to the workforce following the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. But those who have returned have found that employers’ desperation to hire has pushed them to relax job requirements and invest in training schemes to fill the gaps.

“Previously, when we had sort of an abundance of workers, companies could be picky,” says Cathi Canfield, a marketing vice-president at industrial staffing company EmployBridge. “They could say, ‘I only want people who have these skills, and if they don’t have them, I’ll pass . . . Today’s market is, ‘If you can show me a person with strong aptitude and a willingness to learn, I’m going to take a chance on that person and get them in here’.”

Upskilling programmes have also created new career opportunities for workers without specialist degrees or accreditations. Employees who participate in the schemes boost their annual salary by an average of $8,000 more than those who do not, according to a 2021 Gallup study.

“It is life-changing in the sense that I have a career now, and I did not have a career before,” says Stephens, who was hired as a full-time software engineer and later returned to the programme as an instructor. “I [did] not know what I wanted to do with my life and now I have direction.”

But learning and development providers warn that such programmes are still limited mostly to people with at least some education or professional experience, making them less effective at reducing social inequality. Stephens had completed a course at a coding boot camp and had a college degree, albeit in classics, before starting at Twilio.

New York-based communications company Caliber Corporate Advisers is among those employers expanding their upskilling programmes. It has put on a series of public relations classes for existing employees. And, this year, it has expanded the programme to include two graduate trainees. They will have three months to take the courses and work on client projects before being considered for full-time roles in August.

Grace Keith, Caliber’s president, says she expects the programme to attract more new employees. “In the past six months, in particular, upskilling has come up more than ever in recruitment interviews,” she says. “Every single person asks me about our mentorship programme, or what learning and development looks like here.”

Not all upskilling programmes are focused on talent acquisition, though. Some, such as the scheme at software start-up Jobber, concentrate on retention. The company has a career coaching and development team that has helped 154 out of 560 employees find new roles internally since 2020.

“We noticed a trend that folks often will leave the company to find their next opportunity,” says Raquel Binder, senior manager of coaching and development. “[So] why not create the supports to [give employees] the opportunity to find different types of roles within Jobber, rather than leaving to find a new role?”

This explosion of upskilling programmes in corporate America is part of a larger attempt to cope with changing attitudes around work amid the Covid crisis, according to Robbie Watson, future skills and learning manager at energy group BP.

“The old, traditional concept of a job, I don’t think applies any more,” says Watson. “It’s far more of a two-way street. The employee brings motivation and curiosity to the workplace but expects something in return.

“If we can deliver an employee environment that enables them to grow their skills, you’re going to have a happier employee, you’re going to have a more effective employee, and you’re going to have an employee that stays.”

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