This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Felix W. Ortiz III, 34, is a U.S. Army veteran who is working to reinvent the process of employment for salaried positions, especially in the tech sector, by focusing on skills rather than degrees. Working with companies, colleges and candidates, the social enterprise he leads as CEO and founder, Viridis Learning, Inc., has built a platform for all three to use to better match people with opportunities.
Mark Thain, director of social innovation at Barclays, explains the challenges that inspired the bank to back Acumen’s Workforce Development portfolio, which includes an investment in Viridis. “We recognize that to have a meaningful impact on employability we need to look towards entrepreneurial models in the workforce development sector and support those innovators who are coming at this problem with scalable, self-sustaining solutions.”
“In the U.S., there is a real need for innovation in workforce development. For underserved communities, it is often a challenge of connectivity and having limited access to appropriate pathways into employment. The problem is particularly acute in middle-skilled trades, where as many as 40% of employers struggle to find the right talent, yet less than half of qualified candidates can find jobs,” he added.
That is just what Viridis is working to do, Ortiz says. “We are committed to solving the global skills gap by closing the broken education-to-employment feedback loop through data interoperability and the Skill Passport, a verified record of skill and experience with currency in an ever-evolving job market.”
The Skill Passport, he explains, is an immutable digital record of mastered skills that employers can use to match people to skilled positions.
Ortiz sees this as a social problem to be solved as well as an opportunity. In fact, the company’s pilot program was with 5,000 formerly incarcerated New Yorkers. Ortiz says Viridis was able to help 70% of them find employment and 62% of those to keep their jobs. Average salaries jumped from a range of $18,000 to $21,000 to $32,000 to $33,000.
“We first started with the formerly incarcerated community because we knew that if we can impact those lives with our algorithms they can work with pretty much anybody,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz notes that the algorithms that drive the Skill Passport seek not only to capture hard skills like coding but also soft skills like grit. The experience you get as a veteran or growing up in a tough environment can teach you to overcome challenges, something that is both difficult to teach in a classroom and that is prized by employers.
Another pilot effort was with San Jose City College, a community college in Silicon Valley. This provided an opportunity to test the hypothesis that the Skill Passport could help place alumni who hadn’t completed a four-year degree in IT jobs. Not only has it worked for the alumni, he says it has helped with corporate diversity goals as well.
The Skill Passport works for the colleges as well, helping them to focus on training skills the employers want. “The curriculum is misaligned, and that money is being mis-utilized because they’re training people for things that aren’t relevant,” Ortiz says.
It’s working for employers, too. “They realize that they have a problem and the problem is that they can’t find the talent.” The Viridis approach provides employers with access to a pipeline of employees from nontraditional sources that are properly vetted.
Ortiz remains focused on the mission of giving more people better access to successful careers. “You know, we shouldn’t be limiting the ability for me to be a tech founder just because I haven’t connected with certain people. If you’re good enough you should have the opportunity.”
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