When Bridges heard IBM was hiring at an operations center in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.
In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money — and career ambitions.
Bridges represent a new but promising category in the labor market: people working in new-collar or middle-skill jobs.
As the U.S. struggles with how to match good jobs to the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how skills can be emphasized over traditional hiring filters like college degrees, work history and references.
“We desperately need to revive the second route to the middle class for people without four-year college degrees, as manufacturing once was,” said Robert Reich, a labor secretary in the Clinton administration who is now a professor at UC Berkeley.
The skills-based concept is gaining momentum, with nonprofit organizations, schools, state governments, and companies, typically in partnerships, beginning to roll out such efforts. On Wednesday, the approach received a strong corporate endorsement from Microsoft, which announced a grant of more than $25 million to help Skillful, a program to foster skills-oriented hiring, training, and education. The initiative, led by the Markle Foundation, began last year in Colorado, and Microsoft’s grant will be used to expand it there and move it into other states.
“We need new approaches, or we’re going to leave more and more people behind in our economy,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft.
It is unclear whether a relative handful of skills-centered initiatives can train large numbers of people and alter hiring practices broadly. But the skills-based approach has already yielded some early and encouraging results in the technology industry, which may provide a model for other industries.
These jobs have taken off in tech for two main reasons. For one, computing skills tend to be well defined. Writing code, for example, is a specific task, and success or failure can be tested and measured. At the same time, the demand for tech skills is surging.
One tech project that has expanded rapidly is TechHire, which was created in 2015 and is the flagship program of Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit social enterprise. TechHire provides grants and expertise to train workers around the country and link them to jobs by nurturing local networks of job seekers, trainers and companies.
In just two years, TechHire’s network has grown to 72 communities, 237 training organizations and 1,300 employers. It has helped place more than 4,000 workers in jobs.
TechHire’s mission is partly to chip away at “the cultural hegemony of the bachelor’s degree,” said Byron Auguste, president of Opportunity@Work.
Nichole Clark of Paintsville, Ky., heard a radio ad last year for TechHire Eastern Kentucky. The program offered six months of training in software programming that included working with a company while being paid $400 a week. That was not much less than what Ms. Clark, now 24, was making as a manager at Pizza Hut.
Without a college degree, Ms. Clark said, her horizons seemed confined to low-wage jobs in fast-food restaurants, retail stores or doctors’ offices. The TechHire program, she said, could be “a doorway to a good-paying job, which is everything here.”
Ms. Clark made it through online screening tests and an interview and got into the program. TechHire’s role varies, and it often funds training grants, but in this program, it solicited applicants and advised and shared best practices with Interapt, a software development and consulting company. The training stipends were paid for with a $2.7 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
After four months of taking all-day classes on the basics of writing software and two months of working in an internship alongside developers, Ms. Clark was hired by Interapt in May. As a member of the team that performs software quality assurance and testing, she is now paid more than $40,000 a year, about double what she made at Pizza Hut.
For companies like IBM, which has 5,000 job openings in the United States, new-collar workers can help it meet its workforce needs — and do it inexpensively if those workers are far away from urban centers, where the cost of living and prevailing wages are higher.