Demand for workers outstrips supply, so businesses and colleges collaborate to fill the pipeline
Story by Rick Berg
The demand for skilled information technology employees in northeast Wisconsin exceeds the current supply and the gap is growing, according to a recent report released by the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance (NEW ERA). That analysis, released in June, projected that the demand for IT jobs in the region will grow at 21 percent over the next 10 years.
That issue will be among those addressed Nov. 17 at the Oshkosh Convention Center during the WorkIT Conference, presented by Amplify Oshkosh – a group formed to address technology workforce challenges facing growing IT organizations in the area.
The current skills gap is largely the result of two factors, according to Amplify members. First, there’s the all-too-common problem of “brain drain,” with talented and ambitious young people leaving northeast Wisconsin in a quest for opportunities elsewhere. Second, IT seems to have lost any claim it had to being a “cool” profession, so fewer students are choosing it as a field of study.
“When innovative, talented and skilled workers leave our region, the IT sector, like other sectors, suffers,” said Tina Schuelke, executive director of Oshkosh-based Change Management Communications Center and an Amplify board member.
“However, IT brain drain is compounded by the fact that there are so few people in the pipeline to fill IT jobs,” Schuelke added. “For example, UW Oshkosh, Fox Valley Technical College and Oshkosh Area School District are keenly aware that the number of students indicating a desire to pursue IT and enrolling in IT degree and certificate programs needs to rise in order to fulfill the local and regional jobs demand. Local and regional businesses are recruiting from beyond our region to address hiring needs.”
“The biggest challenge we find as a company is that the new talent being produced locally often does not consider the opportunities locally,” said Javad Ahmad, president and chief operating officer at Oshkosh-based Oracular and moderator of the Business Amplified Panel at WorkIT. “They seem to be more targeted to Chicago, the coasts or other metropolitan areas.”
“Second, general enrollment in courses fostering careers in IT is going down,” Ahmad added. “People are assuming that these jobs are being off-shored or the jobs are not cool enough. They’re seen as ‘geeky’ jobs.”
“The good news is that job satisfaction ranking is high for people who hold IT jobs in Oshkosh. That is a strength we can leverage more,” Schuelke said.
Filling the pipeline
As a response to those skills gap challenges, Amplify and other organizations have begun to focus on ramping up enrollment in IT-related studies – including piquing students’ interest at an earlier age. Linda Bartelt, executive director of NEW ERA, said her organization – which represents the four technical colleges, two-year colleges and universities in the New North region, as well as College of the Menominee Nation – has one initiative already underway. It’s IT Innovation Academy targets students at the middle and high school levels.
“The idea is to provide apprenticeship opportunities to allow students to experience working in the IT field to educate them about the opportunities available and encourage them to pursue a career in IT,” Bartelt said.
The program is currently being piloted in Oshkosh and North Fond du Lac and is expected to roll out across northeast Wisconsin in the 2016-2017 school year.
NEW ERA is also looking to carry over its engineering technology “2+2” model to IT, allowing students to enroll initially in two-year colleges with the opportunity to continue their studies with a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university.
Other NEW ERA planned initiatives include “upskill” training for individuals already trained in another occupation, plus focusing on returning veterans, many of whom already have significant technology training.
“Our local and regional education leaders have responded with solutions and programs that bring tech into learning at earlier ages,” said Schuelke. “For example, every student in grades three through 12 at the Oshkosh Area School District has a Chromebook. Beyond that, our local and regional education leaders have created niche learning opportunities to address skills gaps in specific software and hardware applications that are being used in local businesses. Collectively, they are attracting learners –conventional and otherwise – to IT programs that lead directly to jobs that are available right here.”
Groups like NEW ERA and Amplify also said they need to do more to educate students about the kinds of opportunities there are available. Too many young people, they said, think a career in IT means working for Google or Microsoft.
“Almost every organization today needs IT talent,” Schuelke said.
“It used to be that IT was a department in its own right,” said Bartelt. “Today, there’s a digital platform throughout most organizations and they require IT talent to staff the positions necessary to develop and maintain those platforms.”
“A lot of the discussions we’ve had and a lot of the concerns on both sides – the people producing the talent and those of us who consume the talent – relate to correcting these misunderstandings,” Ahmad said. “Parents are telling their kids not to pursue a career in IT and that’s all based on not knowing about the opportunities available.”
Ahmad says he and other business leaders have devoted themselves to visiting middle schools and high schools “to coach students about what IT really is about and create excitement. It’s a work in process.”
Changing the culture
Educational institutions can help fill the pipeline with IT talent, but organizations also need to make cultural changes to attract and retain young talent – in IT or any other field.
Ahmad said he’s somewhat conflicted how to deal with the generation gap that exists between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials.
“There are certainly bridges that need to be built, but that doesn’t mean we should completely tear down what’s worked in the past,” said Ahmad, a self-described “late Baby Boomer.”
For example, he said, some Millennials seem to favor telecommuting and flex time – “just give me a task and I’ll get it done.”
The problem with that, Ahmad said, is that IT often requires collaboration.
“You can’t create systems in isolation,” he said. “The good news is that you don’t all have to be in the same place to collaborate. From an efficiency standpoint, it works fabulously.”
Schuelke believes that change management within organizations is at least as important as developing, recruiting and retaining talent.
“Because the nature and purpose of our consulting firm is change management, my conversations with business leaders typically center around change,” Schuelke said. “Business leaders share that their two biggest challenges are centered around filling the tech jobs that are available now and into the future, and managing resistance to change.”
Technology is evolving and advancing at an ever-accelerating pace,” Schuelke added. “The advancements trigger a need for people, whether entering the workforce or already within the workforce, to keep pace with changes by developing and building new levels of tech proficiency along with change and communications competency. “
The soft skills challenge
As in other fields, the need to develop soft skills like communication, teamwork and problem solving is often overlooked in IT.
“We know that there’s a need to develop specific technical skills and the colleges are responding to that need,” Schuelke said. “But we also need to focus on the soft skills – knowing how to lead, for example.”
“Technology changes are some of the most difficult changes for people to embrace – so wanting to keep pace with change and knowing resistance to change is human nature, underscores a credible threat to business performance,” Schuelke said. “The people side of change is just as important as the hard side with technology changes. In this region, with our manufacturing background, we’ve been very good at creating productivity, but we haven’t been great at creating innovative and collaborative environments.”
Rick Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in Green Bay.