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We are having the wrong conversation about workforce development

It’s no secret: The Silicon Prairie has a workforce problem.

It isn’t just us, either. Employers across America can’t find enough qualified workers. With a historically low unemployment rate, qualified, talented workers aren’t just sitting in front of a screen browsing ZipRectuiter and CareerBuilder.

This talent shortage hasn’t gone unnoticed by workforce developers.

That said, the public discussion around a shortage of workers often focuses solely on the skilled trades—and that really is a crisis. For years, the number of vacancies for plumbers, electricians, and carpenters have far exceeded the number of applicants.

As a result, workforce developers have tried to increase interest among young people in the skilled trades, reminding them (and their parents) that the surest path to a stable, middle-class life may not come with a degree on the wall and a tie around your neck.

Instead, it may come from a protractor in your front pocket and a toolbelt around your waist.

But what about America’s other talent crisis?

Over the last decade, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, and cities across America have placed technology, startups, and entrepreneurship at the core of their economic-development strategy. Whether it’s supporting tech startups through organizations like KC SourceLink or Arch Grants—or 2017’s nationwide recruitment of Amazon HQ2—economic developers have realized how important technology-based businesses are to cities and communities.

Unfortunately, workforce development and economic development are often unaligned.

That isn’t an opinion.

It’s a fact.

The St. Louis region responded to Amazon’s RFP with an incentives package worth more than seven billion dollars. It’s debatable whether giving the world’s biggest retailer taxpayer money for a new headquarters is a good idea, but that’s beside the point. Using incentives to recruit employers and create local jobs is an economic-development strategy.

Unfortunately, an economic-development strategy increasingly focused on technology companies is at odds with a workforce-development strategy that isn’t creating nearly enough qualified developers and coders. In a recent survey of 1,246 St. Louis companies, more than 60 percent of technology firms were dissatisfied with the skill level of job applicants. Amazon itself cited a shortage of tech talent as the number one reason why St. Louis did not make the final cut of cities under consideration.

It wasn’t the lack of a large, world-class airport.

It wasn’t governmental fragmentation.

It wasn’t the troubled national brand St. Louis suffers from.

It was a lack of talent.

But what’s the solution?

To begin with, economic developers, workforce developers, and civic leaders need to get input from on-the-ground entrepreneurs who deal with this challenge on a daily basis. Workforce- development initiatives and committees are often stocked with public-sector officials and the local business establishment—including CEOs who haven’t been a part of employee recruitment or day-to-day hiring in years or even decades.

While voices and perspectives from the public sector and the C-Suite are important, it is just as important to include entrepreneurs who actually recruit and hire developers on a regular basis. Many Silicon Prairie communities have made recruiting entrepreneurs and startup founders a priority. But as soon as those founders arrive, they run smack into the same talent shortage Amazon avoided.

What do those innovators do when that happens?

They solve their own problems. They are entrepreneurs. That’s what they do.

It’s what we did at Claim Academy.

In 2014, I arrived in St. Louis to start Eateria, a platform designed to help restaurants improve their marketing. Unfortunately, I also faced a shortage of programming talent. In response, we began to train our own full-stack developers.

Claim Academy grew from that effort, and today our graduates have a 93 percent job- placement rate and a $60,000 starting salary.

Because of our decision to start Claim Academy, more and more companies in this region are finding the tech talent they need.

That said, the problem is too big for Claim Academy to solve on its own.

But what won’t solve this problem is more of what we’ve already tried.

We don’t need another workforce-development strategy crafted without the input and leadership of the entrepreneurs and innovators who confront a tech-talent shortage on a daily basis.

In 2019, putting technology at the forefront of our regional economic development strategy is a wise move.

We should do the same with workforce development.


Ola Ayeni is the founder and Chief Idea Officer of Claim Academy, one of the fastest growing and most successful coding schools in the country.

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