Addressing Workforce Shortages with an Ecosystem of Partners

Peer Practices
Written by Kelly Lee

Dr. Raghu Santanam

Executive Director, AZNext Workforce Accelerator Partnership

Arizona State University

Dr. Raghu Santanam, Executive Director of the AZNext Workforce Accelerator Partnership at Arizona State University, and the team behind AZNext are tackling today’s talent shortages with a sustainable workforce training infrastructure that includes paid internships, apprenticeships, train-to-hire programs, boot camps, and simulated work experiences that position participants for long-term employment. From information technology to cybersecurity and from data analytics to advanced manufacturing, Dr. Santanam’s team is spearheading collective solutions to collective problems. Arizona State University’s AZNext program is a public-private partnership designed to create a bold, innovative and sustainable workforce development ecosystem.

When Every Company is a Technology Company

IT consistently faced a talent shortage, but “now it is hitting every other sector, which just makes the talent shortage even more of a problem – not just nationally, but globally,” Santanam says. A recent study found that, in the next decade, employers will face significant worker shortages both of workers with an associate degree (nearly 800,000 workers) and of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher (over 8.5 million workers).

If we don’t address this workforce shortage in a very integrated way, we’re looking at economic losses that are to the tune of trillions of dollars in the next decade.”


Virtually all companies are now technology companies, regardless of their nominal industry, and inadequate talent pipelines affect every single one. Santanam shares, “Technology jobs are everywhere, and that puts an added burden on IT departments to find the right talent. And they’re going to be competing even more not only amongst themselves and across companies, but with other lines of business in other companies.” 

Talent Supply Chains

When looking to expand talent pipelines, it is vital to “think of it as a supply chain. The best performing supply chains are not transactional, but are based on relationships,” Santanam explains. This concept is at the core of AZNext, a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored workforce training accelerator partnership. “We’re bringing in partners, tech consortiums, nonprofits and workforce groups within the state to build a diverse talent pipeline that provides more opportunities for people to move up in their careers.”

Santanam says, “We’re doing a lot of work on participant outreach and counseling to make sure those participants understand what career options are available. This is all about expansion of the talent pipeline. How can you expand it? By increasing awareness of these career opportunities and improving access to these career pathways.”  

AZNext builds training programs that leverage industry partnerships to create a well-rounded workforce. “The point is to gradually build those programs that are in high demand but, again, approach it from a supply chain relationship perspective. Work closely with the industry, figure out where the gaps are, and then build those accessible training programs that help you to fill those gaps for partners,” he says.

Collective Solutions for Collective Problems

AZNext built a strong ecosystem of partnerships across the state of Arizona, from employers to workforce agencies to chambers of commerce to technology councils. “You need that whole ecosystem to come together to build something like this,” Santanam explains. “So far, we have focused on IT and advanced manufacturing, but we’re planning to expand into healthcare and other domains.”  

In the IT domain particularly, “This is the right time to rethink our hiring strategies. A lot of the tools that we have built today are in low- or no-code environments.” Though workers need some technical expertise, Santanam says, “you can also get efficient with those that have a limited tech strength, but they can build it over time and become productive in these environments. It is an opportunity to rethink how we source talent going forward.” 

The greatest challenge facing technology leaders looking to expand their talent pipeline, according to Santanam, is finding “the right people within your organizations who you can engage with.” CIOs and CISOs require “support from your training and development group or the HR group. It’s a major shift in the process of hiring,” he explains. “And the most successful organizations bring in HR, bring in training and development, bring in tech leaders right from the beginning to align their interests and figure out where there is business value for doing this within the organization. What roles and where do you see demand and how do you address that demand?”

Looking Forward – What’s Next?

As AZNext continues to thrive, the next question on Dr. Santanam’s mind is, “How do we integrate the workplace experience into university courses?” Many undergraduate students are working full-time by their final year, and he says, “if we were able to help them reflect on that experience and connect that with the university curriculum, we can provide them with university credit or acknowledge that work experience in a meaningful way.”  

For this reason, he is “a big believer in the apprenticeship program. I think if we could explain the value and benefits of incorporating apprenticeship programs into IT careers, that can bring about massive change in the way we think about talent in this domain.” 

When the AZNext team began working on the cybersecurity training programs, one recurring roadblock was that even entry-level jobs require three to five years of experience. This sparked a conversation on “What is our strategy? How do we build in more experiential learning opportunities?” For universities and companies looking to grow talent pipelines, creating these hands-on learning opportunities and apprenticeships will further expand the pool of candidates and will benefit both employers and workers across the country and across industries.  

Ultimately, the more collaborative approach that leaders take, whether with counterparts from other industries or even with competitors, the greater the impact on overall talent pools and expanded pipelines for all sectors in all industries. “Having the right kind of relations in the ecosystem helps insure you against any sort of disruptions to the talent needs you have in the future, and you can build it in right from the beginning” with your strategy, Santanam says. For technology leaders across the globe, this is the moment to re-engage with your ecosystem and build partnerships that will expand the workforce and increase the number of highly trained and nimble employees.

Special thanks to Dr. Raghu Santanam and Arizona State University.


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