Cracking the Code
State-supported sector partnerships are helping Iowa communities tackle critical IT worker shortages.
It’s hard to believe that in today’s technology-driven culture there is a shortage of people interested in high-tech careers. With jobs in computing growing at twice the rate of other types of jobs, and virtually everyone hyperconnected through tech devices, one would think this would translate into career interest.
“Information technology (IT), as a field with many different occupational paths, is poorly understood,” said James Reddish, associate director of workforce and economic development at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) - a national nonprofit that works at all levels within higher education, public, and private sectors to make it easier for people to get the education and training they need.
“People have an image that is outdated - an anti-social guy staring at a computer screen in his poorly lit basement pounding out code. But the reality is the field is varied and diverse, and it doesn’t fit that very narrow stereotype,” Reddish said. “IT touches every industry, making every field an information field. We need to break down barriers so people can see themselves in IT.”
So, how can Iowa break down these barriers and cultivate more creators - not just consumers - of technology?
Experts say producing more IT professionals depends on early exposure, getting students interested at a younger age, and keeping them engaged. A multi-year study by Google, in collaboration with Gallup, found that many students and educators fail to distinguish between computer science and digital literacy and have IT perceptions based on stereotypical images from television and film. While many of them view computer science careers favorably, the majority of students have the misconception that only very smart people can go into computer science.
The state of Iowa is looking to change that. Just this spring, legislation was signed into law that calls for the creation of a high-quality computer course in high school. In addition, academic standards for computer science will eventually be drafted for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. And the state board of educational examiners has been directed to determine what is needed to create a computer endorsement for teachers. Currently, only seven states have publicly accessible K-12 standards for computer science content.
However, misconceptions and lack of career awareness continue to persist. To fight back, IT sector partnerships have formed across the state.
Sector partnerships are industry-driven, community-supported partnerships positioned to help local communities meet workforce demands by bringing together regional employers, education, training, workforce, and community-based organizations to address the local skills needs of a particular industry, in this case IT. The goal is not just to get workers placed in jobs, but to build a strong talent pipeline for employment entry and career progression within specific occupational fields.
There are over 50 such partnerships throughout Iowa in varying stages of development across a multitude of industry sectors. Five of these, located in Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Dubuque, and the Quad Cities, focus specifically on information technology. A sixth, in Waterloo, is currently in the works.
“Our members overwhelmingly tell us that the biggest challenge to business growth is the need for talent,” said Tyler Wyngarden, director of development at the Technology Association of Iowa (TAI). “IT sector partnerships address this challenge by promoting high-paying career opportunities available locally and providing a clear pathway to training and education for obtaining the technical skills required."
TAI and other IT sector partner representatives recognized that part of the challenge to building a sustainable talent pipeline was lack of student understanding about the jobs and occupations available in IT. Education was going to be key to driving more students into the field.
“Our industry sector partner members are very progressive thinking about the need to be forward-focused and pipeline-focused,” said Shalimar Mazetis, corporate training coordinator at Iowa Western Community College and co-facilitator for the Council Bluffs IT sector partnership. “Businesses throughout the Pottawattamie County region have had to employ immigration lawyers and are spending a lot of money to bring in people from other countries to fill IT positions because they can’t find local talent. They know that they need to work collectively for a solution to the problem.”
Federal workforce legislation passed in 2014 requires states to strategically align workforce development services, including state support of regional sector partnerships.
With numerous sector partnerships already in existence prior to the enactment of the law, Iowa is ahead of the pack. In fact, Iowa is one of only 25 states with a statewide sector partnership leadership strategy, and the only one if its contiguous states to have such a strategy in place. Because of its rich network of regional partnerships and strong local and state support (the Iowa Legislature allocates funding to support sector partnerships through the Pathways to Academic Career and Employment (PACE) program), Iowa is equipped to achieve results faster than states that have had to start from scratch.
Part of that leadership strategy is the state’s Sector Partnership Leadership Council, which helps identify best practices, provides direction, and serves in a formal advisory role for the state’s sector partnerships.
Working with TAI, the Sector Partnership Leadership Council commissioned CAEL to develop an easily accessible tool for students and parents to give them an idea of what an IT job looks like. Matching personality traits and skills with different IT careers, the Opportunities in IT: Iowa tool shows how career opportunities exist for every type of person, no matter interest or skill.
“Our K-12 members take these tools back to use in their schools and our industry members use them when talking with students,” Mazetis said. “For example, during CareeRockIT, a program put on by the Greater Omaha Chamber and Council Bluffs Chamber, one of the classrooms had the Opportunities in IT Tool on display. This event engages students through thousands of career experiences.”
Terry Bailey, Iowa Western Community College’s CIT internship coordinator and co-facilitator for the Council Bluffs IT sector partnership, says getting this information out to students is making a difference. “In just one week [during CareeRockIT], 62 schools and 94 businesses across 8 counties engaged with 12,600 students. Of those 12,600, over 2,200 students indicated an interest in IT.”
By focusing on the specific skills needed by employers in their respective regions, sector partnerships are positioned to expand and promote training opportunities.
“We had 10 companies attend our initial IT sector partnership meeting in October 2014,” said Dan Greteman, chief information officer for Ruan Transportation and chair of the Des Moines IT sector partnership. “Now the group is up to 25 companies and it continues to expand. While Java was the initial focus, there are now IT partners running cyber security, application development, and agile methodology committees. Through the work of the IT sector partnership, over 10,000 hours of IT training has occurred through DMACC over the past 18 months.”
The IT sector partnership in Dubuque consists of around 16 active businesses, all of the area colleges, Dubuque’s K-12 schools, as well as community partners. Collectively, they identified the main IT issues impacting employers in the Dubuque region.
“Our group initially identified around 15 objectives, which we narrowed down to our top priorities,” said Kristin Dietzel, vice president of workforce solutions for the Greater Dubuque Development Corp., and co-facilitator for the Dubuque IT sector partnership.
“Finding ways to reach high school students and college students about career pathways, alignment of college curricula with marketplace needs, developing apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship and internship programs, and responding to generational differences in the workplace came out on top,” Dietzel said.
“The Dubuque Greater Development Corp and Northeast Iowa Community College had already convened three millennial roundtables for our region and published a white paper on generational differences. While it had been shared with area human resource directors, those working in IT didn’t know about it. We were able to tackle this issue right away just by sharing the existing information. For the remaining goals, the partnership recently developed action plans and we are already seeing progress. We are producing change at this point.”
By networking this collective wisdom, the IT sector partnerships are learning from each other and sharing best practices so that each one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel when tackling similar issues.
“If we are working on something, or need to bounce ideas off of someone, we can just pick up the phone and talk to another IT sector partnership in the state,” said Gary Vogt, business and information technology career development specialist at Kirkwood Community College and member of the Cedar Rapids IT sector partnership.
Even before Iowa’s computer science law takes hold, each partnership has a strategy in place to get more students interested in this burgeoning field.
Cedar Rapids - This sector partnership is developing a website based on the Opportunities in IT tool to promote IT careers to K-12 students and encourage them to pursue careers within the state. In addition, they have launched a YouTube channel - I AM IT - and are developing a school program model for industry partners to go into schools and show students what IT is with hands-on student participation.
Council Bluffs - This sector partnership worked with Iowa Western Community College to develop a career pathway map specific for the Southwest Iowa region. They also make sure that IT is heavily represented at two major regional career exploration fairs – one for 5th graders that is held at the Mid-American Center in Council Bluffs, and another held at Iowa Western for 8th graders and their parents.
Des Moines - To generate awareness about the opportunities that exist in IT among young adults, 18-24, this sector partnership has supported Des Moines Area Community College in their development of the “Department of Incredible Things,” a series of tools to show prospective students the variety of opportunities in IT and how characteristics such as being resourceful, insightful, a strong Leader, and multi-tasker apply to IT careers. Industry sector partners also worked with DMACC to develop curriculum to make coders out of current employees and to provide internationally recognized certifications.
Dubuque - This sector partnership is developing an externship program for K-12 teachers to expose them to a broad range of IT applications across different types of employers. They are also providing industry insight as the K-12 school district identifies courses and IT pathways to offer students in the fall of 2018. As part of the school district’s transition to one-to-one devices, they are working with Northeast Iowa Community College to offer students a career pathway certificate for running the help desk to support the technology users.
Quad Cities - This sector partnership is working with Eastern Iowa Community Colleges (EICC) to host events to introduce, inform, and engage students in IT. The “Plant Yourself in STEM” program brings adults and youth (fifth grade and up) together to learn about coding, networking, and other computer technologies. They also partner with EICC and the Boy Scouts to host a game design and programming exploring post where students in seventh grade through age 20 participate in a different IT activity each month over an eight month period.
These activities represent core examples of the type of work that is produced through sector partnership collaboration. Rather than expecting schools to find a way to promote IT careers in a vacuum without support, businesses, K-12, colleges, and other partners all come to the table to find a solution. It takes more than a village to develop a strong talent pipeline – it takes sector partnerships.
By the numbers
The demand for skilled information technology (IT) professionals is expected to increase over the next several years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects computer occupations to experience double digit growth between 2014 and 2024:
- 12.5 percent growth in IT-related occupations (compared to 6.5 percent for all occupations)
- 490,000 new jobs projected based on growth
- 1.1 million job openings expected due to growth and replacements
- IT occupations with highest projected growth and 2016 median wages in Iowa.
- Web developers (26.6 percent) - $58,829
- Computer systems analysts (20.9 percent) - $78,250
- Software developers, applications (18.8 percent) - $80,413
- Information security analysts. (17.9 percent) - $72,010
What is Computer Science and how does it differ From Digital Literacy?
The Computer Science Teachers Association’s A Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science report defines computer science as “the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their applications and their impact on society.”
It focuses on both theoretical and applied approaches to the creation of computational processing. Computer scientists work on the design and development of both hardware and software, applying computing principles to a variety of fields.
In contrast, The American Library Association’s digital literacy task force defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills."
How the Department supports Sector Partnerships
- The Iowa Department of Education created a series of downloadable toolkit publications to assist sector partnerships in varying stages of development: planning, emerging and sustaining. These toolkits are designed to aid in making data-informed decisions to address regional workforce needs.
- The Department, in partnership with Iowa Workforce Development, CAEL, and members of the Future Ready Iowa initiative, is developing a comprehensive statewide facilitator certification program to further expand on sector partnership strategies.
- The Department convenes and facilitates the Sector Partnership Leadership Council. As called for in Iowa’s Unified State Plan, the council provides strategic direction and works to expand sector partnership policy in Iowa.
- The Department hired Joe Collins to serve as a dedicated resource and consultant for connecting, assisting, and empowering sector partnerships across the state, regardless of location, industry focus, or level of maturity.