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Upskilling underrepresented talent for private and public gain

August 28, 2018 - 110 views

Upskilling underrepresented talent for private and public gain

Public-private partnership programs can target hard-to-find skills and then work on upskilling individuals for placement in much-needed tech openings.

Job displacement is a big topic these days. Whether you believe digital advancements like AI-driven automation will create or destroy jobs, no one can deny that all workers, in any profession, will need to reassess how they can adapt to a new – and likely technologically-enhanced – role. That’s why, amid the seemingly endless barrage of start-ups intent on disrupting industries and entire workforces, there’s an emerging consciousness that an equal amount of attention and intention needs to be paid to what’s left in the wake of the digital storm.

In addition to the work done by individual business leaders who believe in fearless action for the common good, one of the most compelling and ambitious efforts of this type is the World Economic Forum’s  IT Industry Skills Initiative, which is committed to reaching one million people with resources and training opportunities for upskilling over the next three years. The effort, of which we’re a founding partner, is in response to an earlier WEF report that found one in four adults reporting a mismatch between the skills they have and the skills they need for their current job.

While the skills mismatch is clearly an issue for wide swathes of the population, it’s especially detrimental to individuals living in underprivileged and often overlooked geographies, such as inner cities, remote or rural locations, and areas left behind in the post-industrial era. For these people, the already low odds of employment are even worse in the digital age.

The burden is not theirs to bear alone; by failing to hone the potential of these workers, employers are overlooking a large population of workers to increase the available talent pool, in the specific skill areas they need. That’s why forward-thinking companies are increasingly investing in public-private partnership programs that target hard-to-find skills and then work on upskilling individuals who can be placed directly into much-needed tech openings.

Working Together on Targeted Upskilling 

One example is Per Scholas, a non-profit tech training academy we partner with that offers tuition-free training to  workers in six major markets: New York, Atlanta, Columbus, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. Employers communicate their specific skill and talent needs to Per Scholas – whether it’s coders, IT support staff, network administrators or something else – and co-develop the curriculum. Per Scholas vets the applicants, administers the training to those who qualify and certifies graduates who successfully complete the coursework. Upon graduation, the employer interviews and hires preferred candidates.

So far, Per Scholas has achieved an 85% graduation rate (compared with about 20% for community colleges), and graduates have seen a 429% boost in income. At Cognizant, we’re partnering with Per Scholas to hire at least 350 graduates from our Bronx Training Center, which serves the Bronx and surrounding New York region.  

Because Per Scholas is funded by public grants and investments from private companies seeking to fill their tech openings through upskilling, tuition and certification is entirely free for students, compared with an average student loan debt of $30,000 for a four-year degree. Per Scholas’s certification programs require little more than a few weeks of training to fewer than seven months at most, depending on the needed skill.

Advantages for Employers, Employees and Communities

Thanks to the program, talent-strapped companies get to hire what they need for the same (if not lower) cost than traditional recruiting approaches, while underprivileged communities can lower their unemployment and increase residents’ marketable skills. Further, candidate suitability and employee retention might be higher for these workers compared with four-year college graduates because the latter may be less eager to accept an entry-level tech job. In this way, public-private partnerships focused on upskilling could lead to better employer-employee alignment and a more loyal workforce.

In addition to Per Scholas, other upskilling programs have emerged, including numerous nonprofits, collegiate co-ops such as Revature and free academies such as Launch Code and Tech Talent South, all of which are also working to increase worker skills for the digital economy.

Success Stories Abound

Individual success stories prove the value of these programs. Consider Kevin Kovack, a U.S. Army veteran who returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq.  Kevin was one of the first participants in the Quality Engineering career training track at our Bronx Training Center. Upon graduating from the 12-week program, we hired Kevin as a programmer analyst.

There’s also Vani Bhattacharjee, who had previously worked in IT and wanted to reenter the workforce after taking off 15 years to raise her family. Vani also reskilled herself at our Bronx Training Center, and upon graduation was hired by Cognizant as a quality assurance analyst.

Kevin’s and Vani’s stories exemplify the kind of immediate and life-changing impacts that this type of partnership can create.  We hope to share many more stories like these in communities across the country.

Making a Difference

Given that our success is built on human capital, we believe we can make a difference in closing the skills gap. In May, we launched the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, with an initial grant of $100 million. The foundation will focus on funding education and upskilling programs at the local level, in multiple cities and states, to help improve opportunities for high school grads, community college and college students, military veterans and others seeking the specialized skills needed to land digital technology jobs.

Enabling and empowering workers to update their skills will increasingly be a key concern for businesses and societies across the globe, both for the common good and the benefit of the business itself. By participating in this and other innovative upskilling programs, business leaders can pave the way for digital success, both for themselves and the communities in which they reside.


We’ve assembled some of Cognizant’s keenest minds to share their thoughts on how businesses can improve diversity and inclusion, both in an e-book, “Making Room: Reflections on Diversity & Inclusion in the Future of Work,” and a blog series.

In addition to our kick-off article on D&I in the tech industry, our upcoming blogs will cover an array of topics, grouped in four categories:

  • The future of work (including blogs on moving beyond the D&I buzzword and why the future of work hinges on D&I).
  • What makes us uniquely human in a machine age (including lessons from Beyoncé on authenticity, what global businesses can learn from small businesses and ensuring human centricity in a data-driven culture).
  • Addressing bias (including overcoming ageism, dispelling working-mom myths, embracing adaptive technologies and using technology to tackle hiring bias).
  • Working with community partners (including renovating youth development with the Lower Eastside Girls Club, empowering women through sponsorship, upskilling underrepresented talent and some bright lights of innovative D&I efforts that are actually making headway).

We invite you to read and welcome your comments to continue this vital discussion.

Digital Business & Technology , Diversity & Inclusion reskilling , digital talent , digital skills , diversity , inclusion , upskilling , digital skills gap , skills gap , underrepresented talent , job displacement , diversity and inclusion , D&I

Eric Westphal

Eric Westphal is Cognizant’s Senior Director of Global Corporate Affairs. He holds an MBA in business administration and...

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