Stressing aptitude over achievement, Strive Talent pitches a new way to hire

While unemployment in the U.S. hit a 17-year low and the stock market keeps humming along, there’s a lingering sense that all is still not well in U.S. labor markets.

Most jobs require a college degree these days, a proposition that’s becoming increasingly unaffordable even if it is attainable. Many students who graduate are saddled with so much debt that not even a decent salaried job can guarantee payback in a reasonable amount of time.

And the effects of this debt overhang ripple through the entire economy.

Against this backdrop a number of startups are rethinking how hiring should work, because while many employers require a college degree for a job, the fact is that most of the skills needed to perform those jobs aren’t taught in college.

Enter Strive Talent, a new startup that’s trying to come up with (arguably) better criteria to determine an applicant’s suitability for a job.

For founder and chief executive Will Houghteling (Ivy Speaker 2009), the issue is hardly academic. The son of two educators, Houghteling spent his professional career at the center of some of Silicon Valley’s experiments with the democratization of education.

Will Houghteling, founder and chief executive, Strive Talent

First at YouTube working with massive online open courses from Udacity and Coursera for four years, and then at Minerva University (Silicon Valley’s experiment with a university education without the college campus infrastructure), Houghteling was exposed to the latest and greatest models for making education more accessible.

With Strive, the model is to make the job market more accessible without the need for a college education.

“I asked myself; what is the future of college and what is the future of college for these populations that college is not serving well?,” Houghteling tells me. “There are faster, better, cheaper ways for people to get those great jobs they desire.”

So he developed one that he thought would work. Strive is a competency-based platform based on ability and potential rather than pedigrees, says Houghteling. Strive has outsourced the cognitive assessment component to an undisclosed, Los Angeles-based company, but the interview and other assessments are performed in-house.

The goal is to help people get what Houghteling calls “middle-skilled” jobs in sales and customer service. The model, he says, is similar to Triplebyte, except it’s for middle-skilled jobs rather than engineering roles.

The inspiration came from Houghteling’s time at Google and Minerva, where the model for hiring  talent and admitting students was very data driven.

“In both of those instances I thought abut evidence-based scientific candidate evaluation,” says Houghteling.

Candidates for jobs using Strive Talent take a cognitive assessment and a work sample test, and then have a structured interview. Selection is then based on scores and evaluations rather than a candidate’s education and pedigree.

There are no educational requirements for candidates through Strive and the company has encouraged employers to relax their own requirements. “None of the companies we work with now require a college degree” for the positions Strive hopes to fill.

The company launched in January with an extensive pilot project at Uber to help them hire entry-level sales people and continued with some large undisclosed national retail bank, Houghteling said.

“The focus that we have is helping candidates get access to jobs that are family supporting and have a professional pathway,” says Houghteling. “We try to work with companies that are, at a minimum, paying $40,000 per year.”

Once a candidate goes through the Strive assessment process and is placed in a role, the employer pays a percentage of the first-year salary to Strive. The range of payments is from 10 percent to 20 percent, depending on the volume of hires that the company is hiring through Strive. The traditional fees of a staffing agency comes in at 20 percent to 25 percent, Houghteling says.

So far, 70 percent of Strive’s applicants didn’t have a college degree and 70 percent were also minorities, Houghteling said, but he takes pains to stress that the company isn’t intended to be a diversity strategy. “Data-driven, objective hiring will lead to higher performing teams and more diverse teams because it overcomes a lot of the existing bias when you’re looking at a resume.”

Looking out at the new reality of a tighter job market, Houghteling sees even more of a reason for companies to work with Strive. “I’m thinking about how the macroeconomic climate impacts our effectiveness. The tighter the job environment, the more companies need to work to find great candidates… and they may need to dip into pools that they haven’t previously considered.”

Beyond that, Houghteling stresses that underemployment hasn’t been addressed despite the increasing strength of the employment market. “We have this decreasing economic mobility and a shrinking middle class and we have this large pool of open, middle-skilled roles,” he says. “That’s about 40 percent of the American economy.”

To expand the company’s sales and marketing efforts and its services offering, the company has raised $3.8 million in seed financing. Los Angeles-based Upfront Ventures led the round, with participation from Kapor Capital, Webb Investment Network, NextView Ventures, University Ventures and Graph Ventures.

“We have been evaluating many opportunities in the area of skills development outside of traditional educational channels to drive a double bottom line,” said Kara Nortman, the investor at Upfront Ventures who led the round, in a statement. “Will’s demonstrated success working within innovative organizations like Google, YouTube and Minerva brings needed expertise to bear on this critical issue. He has the rare combination of domain experience, functional ability and lifelong passion to build the skills marketplace of the future.”

Houghteling sees a lack of vocational training in the U.S. these days and thinks that Strive can also play a role there. “One-third of Americans have this college degree and this path to the knowledge economy, and family supporting, AI-proof jobs,” he tells me. “There’s not a great vocational training option to get people prepared for middle-skilled jobs.”

Indeed, Strive will also offer training around interview prep and industry-specific toolkits to get applicants up to speed before they’re placed in their roles. “These are short, targeting employers in courses that would be of especially high value to candidates,” Houghteling said.

The company said the seed funding will be used to further develop the hiring platform and assessment toolkits.

“For decades, we’ve asked young people to pay tuition — increasingly unsustainable tuition — for postsecondary education without any guaranteed employment outcome. New faster and cheaper models like Strive are poised to upend the ‘college for all’ consensus — providing guaranteed pathways to good first jobs at no cost,” said Ryan Craig, co-founder of University Ventures in a statement.