Candid Conversation with Saskia Verstege of Techgrounds in the Netherlands

JF Gauthier
on January 22, 2023

JF Gauthier, CEO & President of Startup Genome: Welcome, Saskia. I have the chance to have Saskia Verstege with me today, really a pleasure to have you with us.

Saskia Verstege, Managing Director of Techgrounds: Yes, thanks for having me.

JF Gauthier: So maybe to start, I'd love to maybe have a quick introduction for you and how'd you get to lead Techgrounds.

Saskia Verstege: Yes, of course. So, I'm Saskia. I'm Dutch. I started getting involved in Techgrounds around three and a half years ago when we actually started the idea of the company.

I got a background in economics. I set up a student venture capital fund in Amsterdam to invest in student startups, and that's how I got to know the startup tech ecosystem. And I realized the lack of IT talent, the lack of diversity, and the issue of being in a quite close ecosystem. And that's when I met one of the founders of Techgrounds, and I heard about the idea of what they do. So I decided to get involved.

JF Gauthier: Yeah, so you're taking one of the biggest problems in tech ecosystems: the lack of diversity and inclusion. Can you tell us how you address this problem?

Saskia Verstege: Yes. So what we do is, our mission is to solve the mismatch in the IT labor market and how we do that is by activating hidden talent to IT, as we call it, and call it hidden talent because it's super broad, but basically, people who are now unemployed or underemployed, as we say, so working below their level that maybe have no idea about IT and all the jobs that are there in tech. Or they do know about tech but simply have no idea how to get into it because they think, “Well, I don't have a degree or I don't have 5,000 Euros to spend on some kind of bootcamp. So I'll just leave it and don't start a career in it.”

What we do is that we activate those people and help them start a career in IT by a sort of two-step approach, where we help them orientate what IT has to offer [through the orientation program Pathways]. So have a unique overview of the IT labor market, all the jobs that are out there, or the starting jobs that you can do after you reskill into IT, and we help them find the right fit for them.

And then we also have our academy. After they know which job they want to start, we have our own academy too. So we get them reskilled in as short as possible amount of time, so three to six months, to actually get them a job. So they can start a program for free with a job guarantee to really make sure people from underrepresented groups who normally don't go into IT can actually start their career as a junior tech specialist.

JF Gauthier: That's amazing. And I understand you've been having really amazing results. Can you share some of this big impact you're having?

Saskia Verstege: Yes. So we've been working for three and a half years now and a lot of learning in the beginning, figuring out what's the right way to do it. But in total, I think we now have reached over 1,000 people with our different programs and different events to tell them about what IT is and then what it can do for them throughout the Netherlands. So in the big cities, but also smaller villages. So I think that's maybe already 10,000 people that were reached with that.

And we've had 750 people follow our orientation program to actually figure out, “Hey, what fits for me? How can I start my career?” And we've already trained 350 people ourselves with our academy with a job guarantee to get them in a job. And the other people who followed our orientation program have followed IT programs with other IT educators in the country, in the cities, to help them get a job as well.

JF Gauthier: And what's your placement rate when they graduate?

Saskia Verstege: I think that's a big difference in one of the things we learned. So we now work with a job guarantee. So we match the students with employers beforehand. When we first started, we didn't do that. So we were just excited thinking, “Hey, everyone from a diverse background, underrepresented groups. Once you go into IT, let's go. We'll train you. We'll help you get a job.” And then we kind of realized, “Hey, this isn't really working because employers are looking for something different.” A lot of students stayed unemployed, which felt really bad. In a way, we were creating our own mismatch.

So after one and a half years, we decided, “Hey, let's flip them all around. Let's start by getting the employers on board and making sure that they look at talent differently so that they will actually hire our students.” And then if they say, “Hey, I'm looking for two cloud engineers,” we figure out, “Okay, then what makes a good junior cloud engineer for you?” Then we start getting the students on board, and then we start educating them with the job guarantee. So I think in the beginning, it was maybe 60%. And now we’ve really seen it grow to 80, 85%, which we want, of course, to get to 100 in the end, but it's been a major shift in our placement rate. And in the end, yeah, the number of people we didn't just educate but really got them a sustainable job.

JF Gauthier: Wow. So, you mean, you take people who don't have a degree in technology, software engineering, developers, and never worked in tech, and you train them for only three to six months, and then you place them in a good job. And what are those salaries to get in? What does it represent for the people in this program? Are they doubling their salaries, or increasing their salary by 50%?

Saskia Verstege: Yeah, a partner organization [TechMeUp] also has actually done research that the average salary has increased, it almost has doubled. And it really depends per person, but in the NTC, there are so many people who are currently unemployed, so just only half their social welfare, which isn't that much, or they're working below their level, so they might be more at minimum wage. Well, you'll see that actually they have really good personal skills, really good soft skills, and really, if they have the working/thinking level, they can easily start as a developer, a tester, an IT consultant, you name it, and join in the growth of that labor market that is happening to not only benefit their own lives and create that financially sustainable life but also to add, really, diversity to the IT teams which you need if the industry is growing as well.

JF Gauthier: Can you give us a couple of, maybe, a real-life example, one or two people that have really marked you and you just thought, “Wow, you know, we're really changing people's lives.”

Saskia Verstege: Yes, I have a lot. And that's definitely what you do it for is the stories of the students. I think one of the… what always makes the biggest impact is also… how does the shift of the students happen and how they got a job in the end.

I think one impactful story is one of our students who joined our development program. I think it's free to say because he also shared it in our own magazine, he used to be addicted to smoking weed for a while. He used to work in coffee shops for quite some years. And then after a few years of having that, he said, “Hey, I'm switching my mindset. I'm making changes in my life and going into a different direction.” He got clean on his own, went to rehab, and then decided to look for a job in IT, which he always found super interesting. But he didn't have a degree and he had some kind of gap in his resume, I guess. So through normal recruitment processes, he wouldn't actually get in, because like an average recruiter or HR manager would say, “Well, I guess you don't really fit the picture.” I think he was like 35 years old.

But in the end, he joined Techgrounds and he started working at one of our employers because one of their employees actually said, “Well, if you managed to, from this background, make that switch, change your life, and completely learn a new skill at the age of 35 and have that motivation to start your career, you are so ambitious and so motivated and so driven, that that actually is so useful and valuable for our team. We want you in our team.”

And that, I mean, he said it himself, like that really made a difference in his life. And I later heard that, on the day he applied for Techgrounds to join one of our programs, he also applied for an… I think it's like an order picker vacancy in a distribution warehouse that he used to do when he was 16, because he figured, “Well, after so many rejections, at least I then have a job. So I'll just do that.” So, if he wouldn't have gotten this way and actually changed his life, his life would look completely different. And I think that's a really good example of the motivation reskillers have and the motivation our target group has, but at the same time, the impact that it has if a company looks at talent differently and gets someone like that on board.

JF Gauthier: Wow. And I imagine he makes more than twice the salary that he would do, right?

Saskia Verstege: I imagine. Yes, probably. I haven't asked, but I can definitely imagine that it's at least double. Yeah.

JF Gauthier: That's amazing. Do you think this is something that can be applied to other countries, to any country?

Saskia Verstege: Yes, I definitely think so, especially the first program. So basically this two-step approach. The first one is orientation and helping people realize what the IT labor market is and realize what it can do for them. I think, in the end, the problem of lack of IT talents, lack of diversity in tech, and at the same time, all these hidden talents. I think you see that in every country. I think you see that in all the major cities, in all the startup hubs. So the program is definitely applicable. And you will have to see how different the IT labor market changes in every country. But the model in itself and the problem you're solving, the impact you make. I think that's absolutely needed in way more cities and way more countries, we can activate that.

JF Gauthier: Yeah, I agree. What would you say to leaders who are listening and very impressed and say, “Wow, we should do this?” Because, well, myself, as soon as I heard about this from Ruben [Nieuwenhuis, Founder of TechConnect], I thought, “The best place in the world to do this is Oakland, next to San Francisco, the biggest hub engine in the world.” And then a city that's not doing so well, where there's a lot of people unemployed and who are not really fulfilling their talent, right next door.

Saskia Verstege: Sounds definitely good. I wouldn’t mind coming overseas. I think what I would say is that in the end, it always starts with employers in a way. I think there are a lot of people who are super motivated and super eager to start a career and there are organizations, such as Techgrounds, but I think there are some more internationally that can help with activating that hidden talent and that can help with actually getting the people on board.

In the end, I think it's really up to the employers and the leaders to look at talent differently and start working with people from diverse backgrounds, from underrepresented groups, whether that's women or more cultural diversity to invest in this new talent pool and get them on board. Because it's not only, it makes a huge impact on people's lives, it's also needed because with every year, we're going to need more tech talent and to just keep looking at universities and the seniors who now exist, we're not going to get there. And it's easier to get started than some people might think. Already, we're having one program, a few people getting a sustainable job. That's already a massive impact.

JF Gauthier: What companies are those great employers that are supporting the program and participating actively?

Saskia Verstege: We now have around 75 employers that are working together with us in the Netherlands, which are some of the bigger, such as Accenture, Capgemini. We have a lot of larger banks, but it really depends. It really differs. So some companies say, “Hey, I'm looking for 10 developers this year. Can we work together?” Some smaller SMEs with 20, 30 employees that just need one ITR a year also work with us. So it's IT consultancy and customers. Really depends.

JF Gauthier: Also AWS is still there.

Saskia Verstege: Yeah, yeah. So we also work with our larger… we call them technology partners. So the curriculums that we have with our trading partners, we don't just make them ourselves. We work with the technology partners that also know what the companies need. So for example, Salesforce, AWS, Microsoft, and they also see the skills gap occurring. So they really see, “Hey, our software is being sold. But in a few years or in a few months, maybe, we're not going to have enough people to actually implement that software.” So we work together with them to see what companies need from new talent and how we can make a curriculum with their expertise as well to get people going as quickly as possible into a job.

JF Gauthier: Wow. That's fascinating. And I invite everybody who wants to know more, you know, to reach out to me or to you. And really, this is something that, as you said, every big tech ecosystem and even medium-sized ecosystem needs to increase diversity and inclusion. Thank you for doing this and showing the way to the rest of us that it's possible and can be successful. And thank you, Saskia. Great to have you.

Saskia Verstege: Perfect. Thanks so much.

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