Tech’s next great opportunity is mid-career workers

Written by Arvind Gupta, University of Toronto, and AJ Tibando, Ryerson University. Photo credit (Unsplash). Originally published in The Conversation.

Mid-career workers have solid business skills valuable to the tech industry.

In the movie The Intern, a 70-year-old Robert De Niro decides to make a career change and lands an internship at an online fashion startup overflowing with young millennials and free food. The running joke in this film is that DeNiro is too “old” to create space for himself in a startup, a world for the “young.”

While De Niro’s character is fictional, the lessons in this film about talent and ageism in the tech sector are quite real.

In displaying the golden goose of characteristics that many of Canada’s tech giants are after — a desire to constantly learn and grow — the analogy of the “aged intern” highlights tech’s next greatest talent pool: the middle-aged or “mid-career” worker.

We’ve spent several decades studying and operating in the skills training and workforce development space. While job transitions have always been an area of challenge for mid-career workers, our research with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship has highlighted the looming impacts of automation in exacerbating that challenge, as well as the inherent opportunity for these workers to be absorbed into the digital economy, an area of high growth desperate for talent.

Shattering the myth

For many years, the idea has persisted among tech companies that in order to be innovative, they must be built by and for young people. Mark Zuckerberg infamously declared that tech companies should think twice before hiring anyone over 30. Now in his mid-30s, he has presumably moved that bar.

However, many tech companies are still made up predominantly of younger workers. Young founders often hire young peers, recent graduates are often paid less, and there are a deeply entrenched ageism and assumptions in the tech world that “older” workers (those over 30) won’t fit into a company’s culture or contribute the same value.

To put it bluntly, this view is short-sighted.

As Canada’s digital economy grows and scrappy startups become larger multinational corporations, they will require many of the same solid business skills that any other company does. Positions in sales, marketing, project and people management all require transferable skills that are often in the greatest demand for larger firms, tech or otherwise. Beyond that, understanding solid business processes that foster scaling are critical and come from years of experience.

This is where we need a new pool of talent for fast-growing Canadian tech companies that is highly experienced, skilled and understands the systems that make a business succeed.

Who are mid-career workers?

Mid-career workers are individuals who have been in the workforce for 10 or more years and who are sitting at the halfway mark in building their careers. This describes the vast majority of the workforce in Canada. They generally have strong business acumen in fostering firm growth and bring a level of maturity and professionalism that comes through hard-earned experience.

As tech companies rapidly grow, they need to hire people who have real-world experience, have worked on and led teams, can build relationships and know how to move products and processes forward. Many such companies regularly say they struggle to find tech workers with these skills.

The true obstacle here, however, may be that tech companies are largely unwilling to accept the suggestion that their best possible hires may neither be young nor from within the tech sector at all.

Many workers will likely soon be looking for their next career move due to rapid advances in automation. Unlike a recession or the shocks to the economy that we are familiar with, automation has the potential to have drastic and permanent impacts on entire sectors.

For mid-career workers in vulnerable sectors, losing a job at one company may well eliminate the option of finding work at another similar firm because automation would have affected jobs there as well.

The likely result will be a growing demographic of top talent looking to break into new industries, including tech. Seizing this opportunity, however, will require Canadian tech firms to adopt some new thinking and a new approach when it comes to retraining and reskilling.

Converting potential into talent

The challenge is to convert the foundation of knowledge and experience of highly skilled mid-career workers into new streams of talent for fast-growing sectors, such as tech, without overlooking the specificities of what it takes to succeed in these sectors.

For example, a senior retail sales manager understands the sales process: how to listen to potential clients, build a sales channel, nurture prospects and close a deal. In the tech space, the product or service will be different and the tools almost certainly state-of-the-art. Although the core skills gained from years of experience will be key to making the transition into a tech firm, doing so will likely require more training.

Now consider the life of a mid-career worker who, with a mortgage and growing family obligations, needs to make this shift as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Less interested in “credentials,” these people will need the digital literacy and technical skills that allow their new employers take them seriously.

Training that is mid-career focused and cross-sectoral does not currently exist at scale. We envision a training approach that is entirely industry-led, designed to operate on the fastest timeline possible and leverages job placements and work-integrated learning opportunities so that these workers are not just skilled, but provided with on-ramps to new careers.

What is needed to accomplish this is a mechanism that rapidly confers new skills to mid-career workers, shifting their talents and potential from high-risk sectors to high-demand sectors.

Our new Canadian initiative, Palette Inc., is attempting to do exactly this. Palette is pioneering a new approach to mid-career retraining by connecting industry, workers and educators to develop new pathways for workers to move from declining industries to growing ones. As automation’s impacts become more present, this mechanism will match employers up with workers that possess the right skills.

For companies willing to look past the obvious yet minor gaps in skills to see potential and talent, great rewards await.