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ABQ skills-based hiring gains traction

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Most New Mexico employers face challenges when seeking workers trained in science, technology, engineering and math, but a novel program in Albuquerque to assess worker job qualifications based on their skills rather than educational achievement may help alleviate the problem.

The program – dubbed Talent ABQ – has proven so promising that it’s garnered national attention.

a01_jd_25may_workforceThe White House featured it on its “Ready to Work” website last summer. And, in March, Albuquerque was chosen as one of 21 communities nationwide to partner with the federal government on President Barack Obama’s newly launched TechHire Initiative, which aims to rapidly “skill-up” workers nationwide for technology jobs, said Jamai Blivin, CEO of Innovate-Educate – the organization that’s coordinating Talent ABQ in partnership with the city and the state Department of Workforce Solutions.

“This all started in New Mexico, and now they’re talking about it nationally,” Blivin said. “We laid the groundwork here, and now we’re working with the White House to scale it up and implement it in other cities across the country.”

The strategy’s novel focus on “skills-based hiring” rather than formal education represents a radical break from traditional hiring practices, Blivin said. But it could help to at least partially crack the local and national bottleneck in graduating a STEM-trained workforce, which has created major challenges for employers in New Mexico and other states to fill degree-qualified jobs.

“Albuquerque, New Mexico and the U.S. in general have a human capital problem, but that may in part reflect the inability of an archaic employment system to allow citizens opportunities to be everything they can be,” Blivin said. “While STEM education is critical, more critical is defining what someone needs to qualify for a job and then identifying a concrete pathway they can follow to get hired. In that sense, our system today is broken.”

In New Mexico, many large employers do report difficulty filling positions that currently require STEM degrees, especially those that require advanced studies at the master’s and doctoral levels. That’s particularly true of high-tech employers, like Intel Corp. or the national laboratories.

Nevertheless, employers might find a lot more qualified applicants, especially those requiring four-year degrees or less, by focusing on the skills of job candidates rather than formal education, Blivin said.

“STEM needs are often critical for some job categories, such as at the labs or companies like Intel,” Blivin said. “But generally speaking, there really aren’t that many jobs at that level.”

Looking at skills

Innovate-Educate has focused on evaluating the skills required for different jobs, assessing the abilities of applicants, then matching them together. That blossomed into Talent ABQ in 2013, backed to date by about $800,000 in funding from the city and the Kellogg Foundation.

Workforce Solutions, which manages worker assessments for Talent ABQ, has done skills testing statewide since 2010. Using that data, Innovate-Educate found that, of nearly 8,000 Albuquerque job seekers who lacked higher education degrees, about 50 percent demonstrated they still had the math skills to manage information technology jobs that normally require an associate’s degree or higher. And 80 percent of those with a two-year or higher degree demonstrated the needed math skills.

“It shows that many companies are asking for two- or four-year degrees and they shouldn’t be, because the job applicants don’t need it,” Blivin said.

That could translate into many more local employment opportunities, since some 60,000 jobs were posted for the Albuquerque area just in the past year. Positions ranged from health care, manufacturing and sales to software developers, human resource managers and customer service representatives.

“If you look at the number of youth who don’t finish four-year degrees, it doesn’t mean they’re not qualified for these jobs,” Blivin said. “Competency testing is five times more predictive than education of job readiness.”

Under Talent ABQ, Workforce Solutions offers free skill assessments at 33 sites around Albuquerque, plus free online courses to “skill-up” in areas where people need more development.

Assessments focus on three to five “core skills,” including literacy, math, ability to read charts and diagrams, listening and observation. They also assess professional skills, such as teamwork, communications and critical thinking, followed by specific skills required for specific jobs.

About 120 employers are participating in the program to emphasize the skills required in job postings rather than education. Some report major success, such as the city, which so far has hired 540 people based on skill assessments.

“We want students educated and getting college degrees if they can, but not everyone has that opportunity in life and we’re leaving talented people behind by not assessing their skills,” said Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. “The data shows that many people can’t check the box for a college diploma, but they score incredibly high for skill sets needed by employers who traditionally think the employee needs a college degree.”

Eugene Moya said the skills assessment process allowed him to win a traffic signal technician job with the city, even though he only has a high school diploma.

“I might not have qualified otherwise, because I have no electrical training and it usually requires a license just to qualify for the interview,” Moya said. “But this opened the doors for me to be trained up into the position.”

Change in hiring

Workforce training specialists and human resource managers say the Talent ABQ model could significantly alter hiring practices.

“This has more promise for connecting workers with jobs than anything I’ve seen in my years in workforce development,” said Associated General Contractors CEO Vicki Mora.

Through Albuquerque participation in the White House’s new TechHire Initiative, Innovate-Educate is sharing its strategies with other cities. In addition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is considering a study of the Talent ABQ program.

Still, despite the promise, it may be difficult to convince companies to change long-standing corporate policies, said Linda Strauss, director of workforce readiness for the New Mexico chapter of the Society of Human Resource Management.

“While local human resource managers may be very interested, they often report to a parent company where hiring practices are decided centrally, and they may not have the authority to adopt something new,” Strauss said.

That makes partnerships with private employers critical, the mayor said.

“We need more companies to move out of their comfort zone a bit to change the way we hire,” Berry said. “If they do, I believe we could develop a first-of-its-kind, world-class program here in Albuquerque.”

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