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Sunday, 14 April 2013 22:00

Tech firm offers state’s Shifting Code program to help ease talent crunch

Written by  Nick Manes and Mike Brennan
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The Factory in downtown Grand Rapids plays host to the state’s Shifting Code program, which offers locally specific training courses to unemployed or underemployed workers interested in attaining skills to work in the technology sector. The program is a collaboration of The Factory, Elevator Up, The Right Place Inc. and the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. The Factory in downtown Grand Rapids plays host to the state’s Shifting Code program, which offers locally specific training courses to unemployed or underemployed workers interested in attaining skills to work in the technology sector. The program is a collaboration of The Factory, Elevator Up, The Right Place Inc. and the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. PHOTO: NICK MANES

WEST MICHIGAN — Five years ago, the idea of hundreds of unfilled technology jobs in West Michigan seemed like an impossibility.

But that is exactly what companies in the region are facing, say local executives whose companies are having trouble finding workers trained in the skills they need.

At least one entrepreneur is taking steps to ensure that West Michigan companies are able to attract talent.

Aaron Schaap, founder of the downtown Grand Rapids co-working facility The Factory and of the technology development firm Elevator Up, leveraged a relationship with The Right Place Inc. to partner with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Michigan Workforce Development Agency to offer the state’s Shifting Code program.

The program is designed to be “a career-transition program for seasoned mid- and late-career professional talent going through, or preparing to go through, a career transition scenario.”

Schaap said the partners want to ensure West Michigan has the trained people to fill all the open seats.

“There’s a lot of companies in the area looking to hire that kind of talent, but they’re having trouble finding the talent,” Schaap said. “We are limiting growth because we don’t have the supply (of qualified people).”

The problem is much broader than just West Michigan. A report from employment agency Robert Half Technology said 75 percent of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) surveyed nationwide said it is somewhat or very challenging to find skilled IT professionals today.

Scott Ayotte, account executive at Robert Half in Grand Rapids, said unemployment in the tech sector in West Michigan is far lower than the rest of the industries in the area. The market is particularly white hot for applications developers, he said.

“It’s not easy to find these people,” Ayotte said. “They are not out there on CareerBuilder. A lot of applications developers are not advertising for jobs. It’s all word of mouth. We bring them in, then send them out to another project.”

Tamara Iakiri, senior talent acquisition specialist at Open Systems Technologies, said her growing Grand Rapids software development company can’t find developers fast enough either, for either contract or full-time positions.

“The demand far outweighs supply at this time, specifically around specific skill sets such as .Net, Ruby, PHP, and mobile,” Iakiri said. “Developers have many different options today and many are choosing to hang out their own shingle. Employers must have compelling opportunities to attract and retain talent. The market is extremely tight.”

Hearing stories like those got Schaap thinking about how The Factory could play a role in helping train new workers and connect them with potential employers, which led to bringing the state’s Shifting Code program to downtown Grand Rapids. The locally tailored state program is currently offering classes in front-end web development and training on the Ruby programming language.

Schaap is using The Factory to host the community learning classes. He said the classes consist of four Cs: classroom, companies, community and creators.

The classroom learning is important, he said, but “a lot of the employers we talked to said classroom time is not helpful enough.”

That’s where the other aspects of the program come into play. The program involves collaboration between teachers, students and businesses. For example, the city of Grand Rapids provided its transportation data to a group called Friendly Code, which worked to turn the data into a functional design, Schaap said.

“We have designed a program that can take folks and put them through that training to be a custom-fit for that company,” said Chris Knapp, information technology, media, and talent director for Michigan’s Workforce Development Agency. “Employer involvement is a must.”

Megan Sall, business development manager for The Right Place, a nonprofit economic development organization, echoed Knapp’s sentiments regarding the partnership.

“We have companies here who can mentor or are in need of these skills,” Sall said.

The classes also pair up students with companies and in many cases result in internships, Schaap said. The “creators” aspect involves mentorships with actual practitioners of the trade a student wants to learn, he said.

The Shifting Code classes last eight weeks to 10 weeks, which includes an orientation and graduation. The classes, which run in six-week cycles, cost between $1,000 and $3,000, with the MEDC and the WFDA subsidizing all but $100 of the cost, based on need.

People who are unemployed, underemployed, or looking to change careers may qualify for the scholarship.

“The private sector mixing with the government can become messy,” Schaap said. “But the state helped open us up to a larger audience. They will subsidize those who want to learn.”  

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