Sparking the IT engine

Microsoft selects NE Wisconsin communities for new civic technology programs

Posted on Oct 9, 2017 :: Insight on Business, Web Exclusive.
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by of Insight Publications

One of the world’s technology giants wants to make sure Northeast Wisconsin remains a vibrant player in the global digital economy.

In a major unveiling last week, Microsoft announced its new TechSpark Initiative, a five-part civic program designed to ensure smaller cities and rural areas have the tools and talent to innovate and succeed as technology’s role in economic success continues to grow. Northeast Wisconsin — specifically Brown and Outagamie counties — were among the first six communities selected for the program.

“We wanted to get outside the metro area and then learn, experiment, innovate and invest in smaller communities,” says Brad Smith, president and chief learning officer at Microsoft Corp. “We want to contribute to job creation and growth.”

Smith, who is an Appleton native, made his remarks during a Skype session with regional economic, education and IT leaders from Fargo, where he was also announcing that city’s inclusion in the first six communities selected.

“Through this effort, we hope to find new ways to equip folks with the skills they need for the jobs of the future,” Smith says.

For those who work in the regional IT industry, as well as those who responsible for developing the talent, the boost from Microsoft certainly is a welcome one. A recent study of the IT industry in Northeast Wisconsin found the region — like many others — is struggling to keep pace with the demands for IT talent. It saw a gap of nearly 1,300 IT professionals in 2016, a number projected to grow to a nearly 3,000 shortfall by 2021, costing the region more than $200 million in wages and uncountable lost opportunities for growth.

The TechSpark initiative is designed to help develop the talent, as well as provide the tools, to remain competitive and provide innovative solutions to uniquely local challenges.

“The power these programs can have is pretty amazing,” says Michelle Schuler, a community engagement manager for Microsoft as well as a tireless advocate for technology education in the region. Schuler helped put together the NEW IT Alliance and is passionate about engaging women and girls about the opportunities in IT. “But the work is just beginning.”

Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative will focus initially on five program areas:

  • Digital transformation initiatives. These initiatives, pursued in partnership with local institutions, will work with both new startups and young companies and will assist established businesses in traditional industries to develop their own digital technology advances to reinvent their business processes, deepen their connections to customers, empower their employees and transform their products to foster business growth.
  • Digital skills and computer science education. Through programs like Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools Program (TEALS), Microsoft will bring computer science education to more high schools in each region. Designed as a program that schools can sustain, TEALS is in 348 schools around the country, with nearly 1,100 volunteers from 500 companies teaching more than 12,000 students. In addition, in July the NEW IT Alliance announced a partnership with Microsoft and the National 4-H Council to join America’s largest youth development organization, 4-H, to provide digital skills training to youth, as well as teen-led learning programs in rural communities. (For more on TEALS in Northeast Wisconsin, be sure to check out the November issue of Insight on Business magazine.)
  • Career pathways. This program will partner with community colleges and other institutions to expand learning opportunities for adults of all ages, including providing greater access to technology tools and other resources.
  • Rural broadband. Through its Rural Airband Initiative, Microsoft is working to help eliminate the rural broadband gap for the 23.4 million Americans living in rural communities who lack access to the economic, educational and health opportunities broadband provides. “We can’t afford to have a two-speed America,” Smith says.
  • Support for nonprofits. Microsoft and its employees have donated more than $1 billion in cloud services to more than 90,000 nonprofits since the start of 2016. Recognizing the important role that nonprofit groups play in addressing local needs, Microsoft Philanthropies will increase its financial and technology support for nonprofit groups in each TechSpark region.

“We have a number of small businesses and farms that today might be struggling with that technology piece they need to help them compete on a broader scale or globally, or just to better manage their operations,” says Kim Iversen, director of the NEW IT Alliance. “We now have a partner that can help them.”