Salt Lake City’s tech businesses need more one-on-one help to solve workforce challenges and we are committed to helping them hire and retain employees.  Our Workforce Development Manager Jake Maxwell is taking on the challenge and offers his point of view and solutions to find more technology talent. It’s part of a series we call “Workforce Friday” to keep the conversation going.  As always, we’d love to hear your feedback.

As we participate in many conversations around Salt Lake City, the question of accessing any talent for any industry is one of the most pervasive. The talent shortage for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) occupations is particularly troublesome as this is where our innovation and much of our new GDP will come from, keeping Utah competitive in future national and global markets.

In a report titled “A Labor Study of Software Publishing and Computer Systems Design” released by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, between 2013-2016 we saw a net loss of 453 computer coders with the greater percentage moving out of state for a higher salary. The report compares Salt Lake City against other “tech cities” such as San Francisco/San Jose, Raleigh, Austin/Round Rock, Seattle and New York City. Utah is unique in the fact that nearly half of our Tech workforce is trained with less than a Bachelors degree. Most of the other tech cities tech workforce have 75% or more trained at a Bachelors degree or higher.  On the surface this seems we have fallen behind but I think it shows an incredible amount of potential for a few reasons.

Tech companies in Utah have been starting up and growing so quickly, we have not had much time to catch our breath and develop the talent to a bachelors level. Some were already headed into that field, but not the amount needed to match the eventual demand by graduation. While we unfortunately lose much of our most educated workforce, companies have been grooming talent internally and channel their start-up energy into accelerating the training process for their employees. However, we can increase efforts to retain our Bachelors level workforce in state and we can keep hiring STEM students early in their education and mentoring them to where we want them, which includes utilization of tuition reimbursement programs. What may come of this focus is that industry becomes so connected to the talent early on, perhaps most-if-not-all students in STEM programs will have industry exposure early enough and can be trained into the culture of a company, promoting both talent security for the company and retention of “home grown” educated workforce in the state.

This is already happening with companies such as Adobe, Instructure, Domo and many techtalent1more. The Talent Ready Utah Tech Pathways program takes this one step further by connecting to kids in K-12. Curriculum in schools is already moving into being very tech-centric, so having some industry exposure early on may help kids make informed choices about their high paying career options locally, rather than using college as a very expensive method to explore career options and hoping for the best. The same can and should be said for all industries. Kids should be exposed to “a day in the life” of many industries and have an easy option to intern, or even “earn and learn” for more exposure.

In my role doing Workforce Development through the lens of Economic Development, it has become obvious it is an economic imperative we find more solutions to this problem, but what is getting in our way? Some constraints I have found include the limited importance placed on CTE (Career Technical Education) exposure in K-12. There are challenges with keeping curriculum relevant with the speed of change in tech. It is difficult to find adjunct professors with current enough knowledge who would not rather to make a far better salary in the private sector. There is opportunity to increase concurrent enrollment and to bring all options to light for students, perhaps in conjunction with the importance placed currently upon IB and AP courses for students looking to graduate with some college credit. We are seeing young people now seek granularity and ROI for the curriculum they are exposed to, even in K-12. The abundance of information available to kids is making them more critical of the information they are required to learn. I heard a phrase from the high School education system called the “3 W’s problem”. Kids want to know why they are learning it, where it is coming from, and what it will help them do. If this is the case, then micro credentials that serve as a sort of learning currency paired with industry exposure can promote that direct connection to how their curriculum will help them in the real world, give them industry recognized credit for those efforts, and help ensure they leave high school knowing what their career options are and already having “skin in the game” through credentialing. In my role I aim to bring the industry partners in to offer the work experience in and out of high school through “earn and learn” opportunities and to know enough about this needed alignment to convene the right people to the table to help drive the changes needed. A new school Udacity has already anticipated this shift and is offering their “nanodegrees” to challenge the conventions of traditional learning and they are already seeing incredible success. This is said to be the “new competitor of traditional Universities”. Utah S.B. 190 “Educating Computing Partnerships is an incentive to build this ability for students to have access to computers and technology curriculum and to potentially pursue this field in high school with industry partners. The Governors Office of Economic Development (GOED) also funds “Strategic Workforce Initiatives” aimed to continue to bring industry closer to our school systems and establish direct career paths for students.

Business owners in any industry have the same ability to develop connections to future workforce, bolster job retention, and eliminate training waste that might end up benefiting the next employer who pays slightly more. Finding the right talent is becoming more difficult, so like any investment, businesses need to forecast what will be needed to make themselves successful and begin budgeting for, and creating the opportunities that don’t seem to be as readily available as they once were by partnering with, and cultivating our next generation of workforce.