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IT talent gaps spark workforce programs

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The Charleston Chamber has launched several workforce programs in recent years, including the All Girls Code Camp, which teaches high school girls about iOS app development. (Photo/Provided)

The software and information technology sector is expected to be the biggest job creator in the Lowcountry in the next few years, yet the region will not produce enough graduates for those jobs, according to a recent workforce study.

Software developers will have 22 graduates for 300 jobs, the 2016 Talent Demand study shows. Computer analysts will have 48 graduates for 291 jobs. Computer network administrators will have zero graduates at the bachelor’s level for 157 anticipated openings.

Computer support specialists, however, are expected to have a better supply of possible hires with 146 graduates for 190 jobs.

Ongoing concerns about growing workforce gaps spurred the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Regional Development Alliance to commission the initial Talent Demand study in 2014.

Mary Graham, the chamber’s chief advancement officer, said many companies continually struggle to hire enough people locally, requiring them to recruit heavily from beyond the region.

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New initiatives geared toward training the next generation of tech workers have sprung up around the Lowcountry. Charleston Women in Tech’s CodeOn program brings coding into low-income neighborhoods. Google CS First, CoderDojo and All Girls Code Camp, among others, teach children to code. The Iron Yard and Charleston Digital Corridor ready adults for full-time programing positions.

The chamber has worked with companies and schools to launch apprenticeship programs and other workforce development initiatives — including those geared toward the IT and tech sector — for Lowcountry students.

Stephen Maddy signed on for one such apprenticeship as a junior at West Ashley High School. Maddy said he had always enjoyed tinkering with computers. He founded a student-run group that fixed teachers’ computer issues.

As an apprentice, Maddy attended high school in the mornings and then went either to class at Trident Technical College or to work in the city of Charleston’s IT department in the afternoons. He took one class a semester and worked 10 hours a week during his senior year.

Maddy, now 19, advanced beyond 40 other applicants to get hired as a PC support technician for the city. He will work full time while attending night classes at Trident Technical College to earn a network systems administrator degree and several IT-related certifications.

“It’s long hours and long days, but in the end, it’s worth it,” Maddy said. “I would be nowhere near where I am today if it wasn’t for the apprenticeship.”

Shifting curriculums, mindsets

Avalanche Consulting, the Austin, Texas, company hired to perform the annual talent study, wanted to identify training gaps by focusing on the degrees offered at higher education institutions, as well as the curriculums available at area high schools.

Graham said the region often struggles to get kids interested in technology and IT in the first place, and colleges are then not producing enough of those graduates.

She said changing high school curriculums is difficult. Schools want to hear that students have an interest in IT-related courses before offering them, and they need teachers who are well-versed in these subjects to teach the courses.

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“It’s very hard to find teachers that can teach computer programming, for example, and keep them in a classroom, because if they’re really good at computer programming, private industry is going to snatch them up in a heartbeat and pay them a lot more money than they’re going to earn as a teacher,” Graham said.

It also takes time to change curriculum requirements at the state level. Graham said the state Education Department is looking at models in other states across the country, such as Florida, which recently included computer science and programming courses as a science credit.

“If a student needs four science credits while in high school, one could be computer science or programming. Florida has done that as a state,” Graham said. “If it’s not an elective, students will be more inclined to take those courses. It becomes part of the core curriculum.”

Graham said area colleges have increased the number of IT and tech-related degrees since the study first came out in 2014, but more are needed to meet the demand of the sector.

“If you look at any growing community in this country, they have the same challenge that we do — the talent pipeline,” Graham said. “We are very fortunate in our community that we are attracting people to move here every day, but even at the level of population increase that we have, it’s not enough to fill that workforce pipeline for the future.”

Bringing IT into the classroom

The talent study prompted business leaders and educators to form a computer science advisory board. The group meets monthly to brainstorm ways to bring more computer science courses into Lowcountry classrooms.

One such initiative was launched last year at West Ashley High School. IT professionals Gary Scott and Michael Buhler teamed up with teacher Molly Langdon to co-instruct an advanced placement Java programming course several times each week.

The pairing of industry professionals with teachers stemmed from Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, a national program. West Ashley High School is one of three S.C. schools to participate this school year; the two others are in the Upstate.

“In order to have more IT or tech professionals, we have to have the teachers that can teach the coursework,” said Scott, chairman of the computer science advisory board. “There’s a recognized need for more teachers ... so the concept is to pair industry partners with the teacher to help deliver the coursework.”

Scott, a retired electrical engineer who spent 35 years at SPAWAR, said having multiple instructors in the room to answer questions was helpful as students learned how to program at their own pace. He said the coursework helps students hone problem-solving skills.

“Being able to take complex problems and break them down into basically bite-size pieces that you can manage and solve is a skill that you need in everyday life,” Scott said.

The pilot program will be expanded to other schools in the area next year. Daniel Island-based Blackbaud has agreed to supply the next round of volunteers for the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program, according to the chamber.

“It does not matter what career field you want to go into, being literate with using computers is essential,” Scott said. “If our workforce isn’t literate with using these tools, we’re going to have to find a workforce somewhere else.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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