Worksystems’ Data-Informed Approach Helps Portland Employers Hire Unicorns

Published on May 22, 2018

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

Worksystems’ Data-Informed Approach Helps Portland Employers Hire Unicorns


  • Portland has a rising tech industry, but lacks a major training hub that serves as a source of fresh talent. This means companies often rely on hiring tech workers from outside of Portland, which is inefficient and costly.

  • Worksystems, a workforce development nonprofit, uses Emsi data to align employers with potential employees through intense, hands-on training programs.

  • Worksystems helps employers see that ideal workers, aka “unicorns,” require long-term investments and training.

Fantastic Unicorns and Where to Find Them

You’ve probably seen those quirky, techy job postings. They’re the ones that want candidates to be able to code, have UX skills, think creatively, throw a 98-mph fastball, and concoct the world’s most delicious green smoothie.

Okay, we’re exaggerating a bit, but you get the point. “Unicorns” are like the Holy Grail of employees. They have broad skill sets, can think creatively and technically, and have plenty of relevant experience.

Unicorns can do it all, and Portland’s rapidly growing tech industry is desperately searching for them. This is where Worksystems and Emsi data come in.

Data and Dialogue

Worksystems is a workforce development nonprofit that helps Portland-area workers improve their skills so they can find jobs or advance in their careers. Its mission is especially important these days because Portland’s job market is exploding, but employers still can’t find quality workers to fill jobs.

Hector Acosta, a research and data analyst at Worksystems, said that folks are unemployed not because there aren’t enough jobs, but because they don’t have the necessary training.

Worksystems helps solve this problem. Using labor market information (LMI) and dialogue with employers, the nonprofit pinpoints what skills are in demand. Then it trains candidates in those skills through on-the-job training programs, ESL and GED training, career workshops, and work programs for youths.

It is Acosta’s job to discover which skills are lacking in the workforce by interpreting Emsi’s data and talking with employers. He uses a data-informed, rather than data-driven, approach.

Hector Acosta

“It is almost like a hierarchy, where you are starting with the data, and that enables you to find out what questions you need to ask the employers or ask within the community. One, this verifies your data. Two, it ensures it is exactly what the employers need,” Acosta said.

This tailored approach is especially vital in Portland. The city lies between Silicon Valley and Seattle, but lacks a major tech research hub of its own. Many small and mid-sized companies, rather than a few titans, create a diverse job market. Such a dynamic community requires an equally dynamic approach to workforce training.

Acosta sees this as an opportunity.

“One way we can thrive is to find companies that have a software development niche, that goes beyond your standard type of coding. We can provide training to people that are already here, rather than having that company import talent from outside of Portland,” Acosta said.

That gives Worksystems’ trainees the cutting edge they need to fill those positions. Jobs can be Portland-made and Portland-filled.

Long-Term Investments Yield More Unicorns

In a staff meeting, Worksystems IT lead, Reese Lord, challenged Acosta to learn more about unicorns and to see how prevalent they are in the workforce. Using Emsi data, Acosta discovered they’re practically extinct.

“Emsi makes it easy to understand the story behind the numbers.” — Hector Acosta

Since there are so few in the Portland area, employers have to poach these unicorns from other companies. This is not an effective solution as valuable employees will just keep moving between companies depending on whose offer is best. The data showed Acosta that long-term investments must be made.

“It is vital to utilize the data and present it in a way that can effectively give employers a realistic understanding of what the workforce looks like and how workforce development can train people in skills the employers are looking for,” Acosta said.

Worksystems works with local businesses to address these talent issues through initiatives like on-the-job training (OJT) or ReBoot Northwest, which helps unemployed, underemployed, and veteran workers improve their skills and find jobs in IT and manufacturing. There’s also TechRise PDX that provides “coaching, training, and job placement support to diverse young adults interested in starting a career in tech.” In addition, Worksystems partners with businesses to see the value in hiring and investing in local talent.

Data and Partnerships

Worksystems is a prime example of what’s possible when data is used to inform decisions. Emsi’s data showed there was a massive skills gap in Portland’s growing tech scene. When Acosta dug deeper into the data, he uncovered the skills employers are looking for. Then he partnered with local organizations to meet the needs of employers and jobseekers by improving tech workforce training and diversity.

Potential unicorns are out there. It just takes the alignment of workforce development, employers, and local talent to get them on the right path.


Emsi provides labor market data software, consulting, and career exploration tools that help workforce boards serve businesses and jobseekers more efficiently and quickly. For more information, email us at, call 866-999-EMSI (3674), or visit