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Sunday, 01 October 2017 17:27

Employers, educators unite to tackle persistent shortage of tech talent

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Employers, educators unite to tackle persistent shortage of tech talent Illustration by Rachel Harper

GRAND RAPIDS — A coalition of West Michigan employers and educators wants to bring more people into the tech sector through an outreach initiative intended to grow the talent pool.

In light of a persistent skilled worker shortage, the partners involved in West Michigan Tech Talent plan to reach out to K-12 schools to encourage students to pursue technology careers and consider ways to upgrade the skills of workers who can transition to technology positions. Additionally, the initiative wants to recruit talent to the region, work to retain talent, and brand the region as an I.T. hub and destination.

By developing and sharing best practices, West Michigan Tech Talent aims to address the tech-worker gap of today and fill the future talent pipeline as the digital age advances and employers and everyday life become more tech-dependent.

In the years ahead, the group wants the ability to say “we have been successful in preparing a workforce for a changing marketplace,” said John Vancil, director of professional services at Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technologies and a founding board member at West Michigan Tech Talent.

Vancil recalls a popular quote in the tech world by Mark Andreesen, a software engineer and co-founder of Netscape, who once said that “software is eating the world.”

“What he meant by that is that every company, in one form or another, is becoming a software company or a digital company. Everything is moving in that direction. We’re coming up quicker than people think on autonomous cars. There are all sorts of crazy things going on,” Vancil said. “All these companies, even if they don’t know it, are on their path to being a software or digital company.”

The transition to the digital economy requires much more tech talent now and in the future at firms that provide tech services and across every sector of the economy, such as manufacturing, finance and health care.

Among the member companies already involved in West Michigan Tech Talent, the demand for software developers, systems analysts and security professionals is projected to grow more than 20 percent in the next decade.

The coalition coordinated by West Michigan Works! initially involves 15 organizations, employers and schools from within and outside of the tech sector. Among them are OST, Spectrum Health, Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller Inc. and Gentex Corp., plus Grand Valley State University, Davenport University and the Kent Intermediate School District.

RISING DEMAND

West Michigan Tech Talent wants to track employment trends in tech locally and maintain close ties with colleges so they can adjust their academic programming accordingly, said Joe Thiry, a business solutions representative at West Michigan Works!

A shortage of tech talent is a national problem, Thiry said. He cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that project a demand of 1.4 million tech positions nationwide by 2020, with just 400,000 people to fill those jobs.

In its fourth annual West Michigan Talent Assessment and Outlook report, Grand Rapids-based Talent 2025 Inc. projected strong 10-year growth rates for tech positions in the region, led by computer systems analysts (26.8 percent) and software developers in applications (24.2 percent).

The unemployment rate for tech workers in West Michigan runs less than 2 percent, Thiry said, adding that many companies from across economic sectors struggle to find the qualified tech workers they need.

Rather than competing against one another for talent, employers involved in West Michigan Tech Talent united to grow the pool of workers, Thiry said.

“So really what we’re up against is how do we make it so five years from now we’re not in the same position of creating talent in the region, or stealing each other’s talent, or just struggling to find people,” he said. “How do we make sure that supply matches demand? And we have a growing demand with some of the organizations we have here.

“We kind of take a mentality that the rising tide raises all boats in the region. If we can create more talent for the future, that helps everyone out.”

EXPANDING THE POOL

One idea for nurturing tech talent is forming apprenticeship programs like the skilled trades have done for generations. A person, whether young or just starting out or transitioning in his or her career, can get into an apprenticeship and work and receive training.

The coalition also intends to reach out more to create a greater diversity of talent and attract more women and minorities into the field, two demographics that historically have been underrepresented, Vancil said.

“It’s not an extremely diverse workforce, so that’s something we’re paying a lot of attention to,” he said.

A number of organizations individually are already working to address the problem, Vancil said. He believes West Michigan Tech Talent, which launched in Kent County and hopes to gain additional partners in surrounding counties, can better coordinate efforts by serving as a clearinghouse for data and best practices.

The effort will only grow in importance as the digital age accelerates, Vancil said. As an example of how fast technology moves, he points out that the first iPhone came to market just a decade ago. Today, smartphones are a ubiquitous part of consumers’ everyday lives.

While many regions struggle to keep pace with those changes, West Michigan in particular lags in nurturing talent for employers for the fast-changing tech world, Vancil said.

“Think about what it was like in 2007 and think about what it’s like today, and understand that that rate of change continues to accelerate,” he said. “That’s why we’re behind the game and trying to pull folks together and focus on it.”

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