Catalyte leads frontline talent innovation

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Put our talent to work

Catalyte is partnered with JFFLabs to find new and better ways of transitioning frontline retail workers into the knowledge economy and IT industry. Through that partnership, we’re teaming with companies to upskill and retrain these types of employees in the Chicago area.

Below is a recap of those efforts. This post was authored by Stephen Yadzinski, managing director for acceleration at JFFLabs. It was originally published on

Chicago businesses lead frontline talent innovation

Companies are partnering with technology providers that offer proven solutions for finding and transitioning frontline workers to careers in IT and software development.

The retail and service sectors are experiencing a moment of transformational change across the country, and Illinois is no exception. Advanced technology is creating opportunities for employers to address the talent development of workers in new ways. In Illinois, 1.1 million people work in retail or service jobs, more than any other industry. That’s enough people to fill Soldier Field for three Chicago Bears football seasons. These sectors are primed to make a significant impact by developing frontline talent to improve economic advancement for workers and benefit businesses’ bottom line.

Consumer expectations for seamless digital experiences have forced these retail sectors to transform and become massive producers of technology. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in 2020 there will be 1.4 million open software development jobs. To address this, companies are partnering with technology providers that offer proven solutions for finding and transitioning frontline workers to careers in IT and software development.

One of those companies, Catalyte, has made great progress on this front in Chicago and across the country. Using artificial intelligence and data science, Catalyte identifies individuals through an online assessment who don’t have traditional technology education or employment backgrounds but have the ability to become great software developers. Catalyte selects individuals based on their aptitude to become great engineers, trains them through an innovative apprenticeship program, and hires these workers as software developers. The company can help someone making $25,000 per year develop the skills and experience to make $95,000 in five years.

Take the stories of two Catalyte employees, Marc Garcia and Tony Richards.

Marc is a first-generation American, the son of Mexican immigrants. Growing up in a working-class family, Marc’s innate abilities were never in question, but his family’s finances limited access to opportunities. Marc made his way to Chicago, where he worked full time in the food service industry as a host, server, and bartender to cover the cost of his higher education. He was stuck in a revolving door of night classes paid for by early morning, last- call closings.

Similar to Marc, Tony worked at an In-N-Out Burger in California. Despite working a frontline job with above-average wages and benefits for the industry, Tony felt he was not living up to his full potential. He worried about the impact automation would have on the service industry and how quickly it would affect positions like his. How could he meet his own high standards, become part of the tech industry, and stay a step ahead of technology instead of being made obsolete by it? He moved to Chicago to join Catalyte and find out.

Marc and Tony represent the hidden talent found throughout frontline retail or service industry workers. Workers’ jobs don’t represent their aptitude and should not predetermine their employment potential. With new solutions, assessments, and training models, we can prove what we’ve always known: talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.

Their stories are examples of the transformation that’s possible when we adopt ways of finding, evaluating, and training workers that meet employer and worker needs. Having completed Catalyte’s training program, both Marc and Tony are now employed as software developers. Coincidentally, Marc’s new office is above a restaurant where he used to work.

This work in Chicago is an exciting example of what we’re seeing across the country. At JFF, we’re working with entrepreneurs, growth-stage startups, and Fortune 500 companies to accelerate great ideas so workers advance and businesses thrive. Google, for example, is working with JFF to train low-income adults for careers in IT support. Walmart is involved in developing opportunities in retail and related sectors by scaling promising work-based learning social enterprises.

In Chicago, having large corporate entities and innovative tech companies like Catalyte finding more people like Marc and Tony is critical if we want to remain competitive on the national and international stage. For businesses, upskilling is a way to discover the hidden talent already on staff. It gives workers new ladders to climb and builds a more engaged and productive workforce. It’s also a way to reinvest in the city, promote workforce development, leverage the skills of a technically inclined population, rebuild the city’s middle class, and put more Chicagoans to work in the jobs of the future.


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