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America’s workforce has a problem: there’s a surplus of middle-level jobs sitting vacant, while there’s a sea of untapped talent. This gap is known as the opportunity divide, where social and educational forces limit access to economic opportunity for large sections of the population. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, with technology rapidly changing the systems connecting us to one another while providing unprecedented access to data and information, offers businesses a unique chance to close that gap. Closing this gap is critical to building a diverse and equitable workforce that is equipped to solve the challenges ahead and tap into new sources of intellect and innovation.

Perhaps no one understands this challenge as well as Gerald Chertavian. As founder and CEO of Year Up, a nonprofit skills-development organization, Chertavian has dedicated his career to closing the opportunity divide. With an annual operating budget of over $130 million, Year Up trains nearly 4,000 low-income young adults annually for careers at Fortune 500 companies like Salesforce, equipping them with the skills, support and experience to find success in higher education and professional careers.

In this interview, Chertavian shares his thoughts on the critical need to eliminate the opportunity divide.

 

One expectation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that a significant number of jobs will be lost to automation. Will this expected change exacerbate the opportunity divide?

If you think of ages 0 to 21 as a race to be competitive in the labor market, right now we have incredibly unequal opportunities to build skills, develop networks and gain valuable experiences. That starts all the way from pre-K through elementary, secondary education and post-secondary education. It gets into the systems that either connect or don’t connect people to opportunity. It gets to role models who are either available or not available.

If you don’t start to provide equitable access to opportunities that enable individuals to start and build their careers, they won’t be able to keep up. You’ll see greater unemployment at the lower end of the skills base and/or a perpetual underclass that really can’t generate the income and earnings they need to live decent lives. It’s about preparation for the right jobs, the new jobs created by this revolution, starting at the very beginning.

 

So if some of the technological advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have the potential to create problems and widen the opportunity divide, are there also advancements that are capable of closing it?

A variety of tools have contributed to the democratization of education. There are broader ways for people to gain skill competency and knowledge. The other thing you’re going to see is that companies are increasingly able to better assess competency—and not just use the blunt mechanism of looking at who has a college degree and who doesn’t. They will do that out of necessity, but intelligence isn’t distributed by ZIP code or by who has what bank balance or degree.

The research we have published with Harvard Business School, Grads of Life and Accenture confirms what many have long suspected: employers’ focus on credentials as opposed to competencies in their recruitment processes costs them time, talent and treasure. Competency-based hiring has the potential to fill jobs faster and cheaper with higher quality and more diverse talent, while simultaneously reducing the influence of bias and privilege in the hiring process. These types of changes have proven to be both good citizenship and good business, and we look forward to helping employers implement these strategies to strengthen and diversify their workforces.

We have major employers, some of the largest companies in this country, that when we first went to them, they said “Look, we just don’t hire people for these jobs—technical jobs, accounting and others—if they don’t have a four-year degree.” We said, “Well, humor us. Just try it. If it doesn’t work, don’t even pay us.” And the fact is that the individuals we were able to place in those roles helped those companies change their entire practices when it came to how they evaluated their requirements.

 

What does a world without that opportunity divide look like? How are resources allocated? What does the process of seeking talent look like?

The opportunity divide is partially a result of a series of interlocking systems that unfortunately conspire against some and advantage others. So, think of adjudication systems, housing and zoning systems, and food security systems. Think of educational systems. Think of social networks. Think of how a young person who is disadvantaged by just one of these systems has that many more barriers to overcome in order to enter the economic mainstream.

Eighty-five percent of job interviews are secured through a social connection or a network. If you live in an unconnected world, guess what? You are only looking at 15 percent of the opportunities left. And you and I both know that’s how the world works.

So what would that world look like without the opportunity divide? We would all have better preparation and arrive at school ready to read. We would all graduate from high school ready to go to college or pursue a trade, certificate or path that isn’t necessarily a four-year degree. And that certificate or path could be valued and valuable, whether in the trades or other areas.

And you would see companies hiring for competency and not pedigree or connections.

Today, you have such segregation within urban areas that lack strong educational systems, role models, opportunities, social connections and capital. These are pretty tough vortexes from which to escape because of the way systems sometimes grind together. It is an exponentially harder game for some to win than others.

 

Companies across the spectrum, including Salesforce, have benefitted from exposure to talent we otherwise would have missed: people like Marcus Stevenson, who grew up in the East Bay area of northern California. He joined us in 2017 as a Year Up intern and is now a full-time programs coordinator serving in our Office of Equality. As a beneficiary of Year Up, how do you think programs like that help people bridge the opportunity divide?

You can’t literally give every single person a chance. I understand that, but it is also important to remember that a resume is only part of what you’re getting. There’s a whole person behind that, and that’s important. At Year Up, I learned I had many of the raw skills I needed to succeed. Public speaking, making small talk, code switching for different environments, networking—I just needed some polishing to make it all corporate-appropriate.

And then there were practical things I found I needed to learn. One of the big ones for me was business communication. I’ve always been good at talking, but translating that into writing was never my strong suit. I had no idea how many emails I would have to write every day. But I practiced things like grammar, structure and punctuation. I learned more technical skills in computer hardware and software.

Everyone needs something a little different, but workforce development programs like Year Up and others provide that corporate structure so you can learn in a low-risk environment.

And when you look at the demographics in the pipelines for the talent that most companies are sourcing from, the really prestigious schools churn out some great talent. But you don’t see as much gender diversity and ethnic diversity as you do in these funnels from workforce development programs and nontraditional backgrounds.

When you bring in diverse talent, you can see the diversity of thought taking place. Your meetings don’t feel the same or sound the same anymore. Your projects will have a little twist to them, a little flair, just because you’re bringing in fresh eyes and fresh minds.

Amy Weaver is the president, legal and general counsel of Salesforce and leads the company’s legal, compliance, internal audit, security and government affairs teams. She is a member of the Year Up Bay Area Advisory Board.

For more insights on the skills gap in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how low code development and citizen developers may impact it in IT, check out our interviews with Anna Rodriguez of Slalom on how citizen development can shrink the skills gap; Damian O’Farrill of Autodesk on How Naiveté Fuels Innovation and David Riggan & Sudheer Sura of BMC on why citizen development helps IT departments do more than simply “keep the lights on