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The Tech Talent Chasm

How a changing world is forcing businesses to rethink everything.

In the gossamer bubble of tech startups that seem to exist outside of death and taxes, there is only one constant: the viscous brawl for talent.

So predictably, at the end of every call a startup has with an investor or an advisor, they get asked the same question: “What can I do to help?” and inevitably every young entrepreneur had the same answer: “I need engineers.” Veteran entrepreneurs had a different answer only because they had enough experience to know that not even the most elite investor on the planet can help here.

Then everything got much, much harder.

The doomsday predictions of yesteryear combined with intense novel pressures bred by the pandemic, have churned the high-tech talent market into a frothy surf.

Turnover is skyrocketing, and all signs say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

This is clearly unsustainable. The old model of employment is dead. If companies do not fundamentally change the way that they attract, develop, and retain talent, they will not survive. Remote work is the new normal, and that has turned the whole country into a battleground.

We must instead recognize the two most important questions that the business of tomorrow must ask themselves.

1. What do we offer to candidates that nobody else can give them?

Remote work has thrown a wrench into the standard retinue of perks. The coffee bar in your new Mission District office isn’t going to do much for the brilliant software architect who just decided she’s moving to Montana.

Obviously, salaries are increasing across the board. In-office requirements, once the standard, are now a rare aberration that demands a high salary premium. High-paid tech workers are driving up the cost of living, and tech giants have started competing outside of their standard geographies as companies struggle to bring on more talent.

Professional development is more important than ever. It’s no longer enough for companies to simply offer professional development stipends. The conference circuit -- once a cornerstone of industry education -- has withered in a virtual world. There is a need for engaging digital content to fill this gap. Companies should be taking an active interest in the development of each and every employee. It’s no longer enough to offer passive support.

Companies should be reinvesting all the money they’re saving on office space into strategic in-person events and any tool they can find that will reinforce company culture in a digital world. Companies like  Luna Park are pioneers in this new economy of digital culture. This is still an extremely sparse market. Creating engaging, multi-person digital experiences is a completely new type of content, and it will take us time to master it. In another lens though, these targeted, engaging experiences offer a more compelling vision for the metaverse than the “social media in VR” concepts we see from companies like Facebook.

Companies need to prioritize and embrace the freedom and burdens that come with remote work. One of the most important things to workers today is flexibility. Especially parents -- who have had unique challenges throughout the pandemic -- value a job that makes it a priority to have organizational redundancy. Sometimes you need to drop out of a meeting at the last minute, and people want an organization that will support them when they need it most.

Finally, we need to start taking ethics seriously. In the world of deep tech, every engineer is going to be working with new technologies. When they read a particular article about the ethics of AI, they need to know what their company’s stance is. As mass media holds big tech to higher and higher degrees of scrutiny, companies that take ethics seriously, and reflect strong ethical stances in business models, will be better positioned to attract and retain top level talent. Employees have a choice now, and they’re choosing their conscience.

2. What talent can we find and develop better than our competitors?

I think this is the single biggest and most important mentality shift that will carry organizations forward into the evolving talent market. The old way of hiring -- of holding out for months and years at a time for a perfect candidate who may or may not exist -- already operated at the very margins of economic feasibility. To borrow a tortured analogy, we are searching for our keys under the light of a misplaced lamppost.

To flip this notion on its head, rather than thinking about talent as something to be found, we must start to view it as something to be cultivated. Rather than taking pride in gatekeeping positions with obscure algorithmic knowledge, organizations should focus on finding diamonds in the rough. They should spend serious strategic resources to experiment with new methods of identifying talent that previously would have been written off.

A mediocre company will complain that alumni of coding bootcamps and new college graduates have unreasonable expectations and insufficient skills. A great company will find ways to use the talent that exists in the market, rather than wasting time praying for a world that isn’t coming back.

Sadly, American education is stuck in a horribly ineffective millennia-old lecture-based style of education that has massively hindered our competitiveness on a global scale. American educational outcomes are slipping, and the Talent Chasm is the result. The people we need for our jobs do not exist. We must create them.

We must view industry not as a final destination, but part of a long, winding educational experience that stretches across our whole lives. Companies aren’t fundamentally changing their function, but they must grow to fill the gaps left by America’s aging education infrastructure.

This is a tremendous responsibility. It’s a huge burden, and not something that companies can effectively execute on without significant resources. Adding an educational responsibility and long onboarding times to the long list of things a company already has to pay attention to is a tall ask. However, the better we are at it, the more able we will be to bring in a broader more diverse group of candidates.

The Punchline: Staying Competitive

The past decade has taught us that every company is a software company, and every company is also a data company. The next decade will teach us that every company is an education company. Employee satisfaction is just as important as customer satisfaction. Employee retention is just as important as revenue retention. The value you deliver to your employees is just as important as the value you deliver to your customers.

Embrace the change or become irrelevant.

Welcome to the Chasm.