Pushing potential to the max

Innovative thinking helps Atrion bridge the skills gap

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Maximizing potential, in people and in systems, is one of Tim Hebert’s fundamental values. He is always looking for ways to improve his skills and to help his employees at Atrion, where he is the CEO, develop their skills. For the past decade or so, he’s also used this talent to take on one of the biggest challenges facing the tech industry, finding and keeping talented employees in an environment of zero unemployment.

On Wednesday, Hebert is one of 100 innovators and community leaders nationwide joining President Obama at the White House for the Summit on Building the Tech Workforce of Tomorrow. There, he will share what he’s learned in nearly three decades of relentless focus on workforce development issues.

Atrion, which was acquired by Carousel Industries in October, is an information technology (IT) services firm specializing in security, collaboration, unified communications, networking, applications and data center solutions. Rhode Island’s Information Technology industry is both growing and perpetually short-staffed, according to Hebert, despite a statewide unemployment of 5.3 percent in October, which is higher than the national rate of 4.6 percent and Massachusetts’ rate of 2.9 percent. He said that when Rhode Island’s IT service companies, like Atrion, are combined with the companies that have a large IT component, like Amica, FM Global and CVS, there are more than 15,000 jobs, plus an additional 1,000 or so positions that are open but unfilled for lack of qualified candidates. The competition for tech talent will intensify in coming months with the arrival of Virgin Pulse, which Governor Gina Raimondo announced last week had acquired ShapeUp, a local software start-up.

Hebert said it can take anywhere from three months to a year to fill an open IT position, and in that lag the window to accept, or build on, opportunities sometimes closes, stunting growth within the company and the state’s economy. Atrion has an average annual growth rate of 25 percent a year, a number Hebert says could be higher if the state didn’t have a “skills gap,” a persistent mismatch between the skills employers need and the skills applicants have.

It’s a problem Hebert has focused on for more than a decade, thanks to two experiences that revealed pain points at Atrion and within the industry at large. The first one was revealed when the company needed to hire six new employees, and four of them washed out very quickly after they were hired.

Disappointed that they had to go back to square one and start recruiting again, Hebert took action. “I sat down and went through the entire interview process of what we did and why we chose the four people that we chose, and you know, when I really looked at it, I realized that we were hiring based on a résumé, not on all the other factors.”

The IT industry needs people who have technical skills and can develop relationships with clients who may not have the same level of skill. They need to be able to see problems from the client’s point of view, collaborate, and solve problems. By focusing on the résumé or what people had done in earlier jobs, Hebert said they focused too much on IT skills and certifications and overlooked crucial soft skills: collaboration, the ability to engage a client and make them feel comfortable, and the ability to diagnose the deeper cause, rather than putting a Band-Aid on the surface of a problem.

The hypothesis that their hiring practices were part of the problem led to an overhaul of how they went about filling open and new positions. They decided to weigh what Hebert calls the applicant’s “core values” and character – what motivates them, what they are excited about, and how they put that into action – more heavily in the process and give less emphasis to bullet points on a résumé. Applicants go through six or seven interviews in a process that can last for several months. Every step of the way, they are being evaluated on their character, emotional intelligence and soft skills. Hebert credits Nancy Contillo, their “chief people officer,” for adding structure to, and maturing, the early ideas into procedures and policies, leading to a further reduction in hiring mistakes and employee turnover.

The second pain point is the ever rising cost of hiring a new employee, something Hebert likens to “free agency in baseball or football or basketball, where you have a set of people who have skills that are highly sought after.” The Boston Globe reported in February 2016 that in Massachusetts, a software developer right out of college will earn $90,000 a year and once in their jobs may receive up to 20 calls a day from recruiters. Every time they jump to a new company, they receive a salary bump of roughly 20 percent. The problem with this kind of free agency, said Hebert, is that “at some point in time, they are not worth what they are being paid.”

While saying that excellent talent is worth a premium price, he feared the salary war pushed starting salaries for mediocre talent too high, Hebert started thinking about different solutions, so the company could avoid the bidding wars. His solution is four-fold:

One is engaging young people, from preschool through high school, in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, exposing them in a world that is larger than what they know, and helping them to explore, be creative, think critically and learn the passion of learning. He believes these mindsets are crucial to success in life and offer an opportunity to introduce the idea that there are good jobs in our community for those who develop those traits.

Two is increasing the number of “on-ramps,” making it easier for people, either students just out of high school or college or those displaced from other jobs, to enter the tech industry. Atrion’s technology apprenticeship program, one such on-ramp, is a program that includes a technical bootcamp and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, mixing classroom learning, hands-on projects and time in the office to ensure young adults with some tech skills earn certifications and learn “the Atrion way” so they are prepared for jobs in the company. Hebert said he can take someone who has a passion for learning, good emotional intelligence and soft skills and teach them the IT skills they need to thrive with his company. To date, the apprenticeship program has trained around 100 people, and 90 of them remain employed by the company, with several of the other 10 employed by Atrion clients. Another on-ramp is Atrion’s partnerships with workforce development programs, a priority of Governor Raimondo’s, such as Tech Collective’s “IT on Demand” program. “IT on Demand” gives people, mostly in their 40s or older who have been displaced from other industries, the opportunity to get training and their first jobs in IT.

Three, Hebert said, is working “with the incumbent workforce to help train and advance their careers” because people need to think differently to build a career rather than just doing a job.

“When I first started in the industry,” he said, “the time from when you introduced a product until it was obsolete was about 10 years. If I look at the average now, it’s 18 months. My industry is one that forces resiliency, adaptability and agility. And the ability to learn is an imperative in that environment.”

The company gives their employees opportunities to learn new skills and develop their talents and leadership abilities. Hebert is severely dyslexic and notes that it took him time to realize that he needed to focus on his strengths, the innate desire to innovate, create and evolve rather than obsess about “fixing” the challenges that come with dyslexia, including his weak ability to spell. He’s an advocate of the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, writing on his blog that people who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job and 12.5 percent more productive.

Four is sharing what he’s learned at Atrion so that other companies, even his competitors, can build on that knowledge base and move industry, government and education toward a “growth mindset” where success is based on hard work, acquisition of knowledge and persistence based around an employee’s dominant talents. Preparing the future workforce is what brings him to the White House on Wednesday.

“We’re on the tip of the iceberg,” he said, referring to changes in the workforce due to automation and artificial intelligence. “Displacement is going to happen,” he said, adding that continuous learning is critical. There will not be “a job anywhere in America, within the next decade, where I can do the same thing for 25 years. That will not exist. We’ll be lucky to do the same thing for four years in a row. In the life of a person working 30 years, that’s eight or nine jobs with a skill set that is different than the one they had before.” All the more reason to encourage people to seek out new skills and to advocate locally and nationally for programs that create on-ramps and youth engagement in the STEAM arena.

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