Cover Story – Tech-tonic shift

Posted on Nov 1, 2015 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
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Michelle Schuler is among the IT pros leading the charge to fill a dire shortage of technology talent in the New North. Photo Courtesy: Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios

Zack Pawlosky looks forward to the day he can meet with his IT staff in person.

The founder of Oshkosh-based Candeo Creative, Pawlosky has seen his business grow from a college brainstorm in 2012 to a thriving interactive marketing company with a team of nearly 20. As the company and the services it offers have grown, so has the need for professionals who can create the code and manage the network that make the digital assets of modern marketing work.

He can find the talent. It’s just that he can’t often find the professionals he needs — or convince them to relocate — here in Northeast Wisconsin.

“We have some really talented IT folks who work for us,” Pawlosky says. “But there are some of them I’ve never met face-to-face because they work for us remotely.”

Undaunted, the IT recruiting experience motivated Pawlosky to change the equation. He joined like-minded business leaders to create and support Amplify Oshkosh, a group dedicated to supporting, celebrating and raising awareness of all things IT, especially the profession’s importance in moving the local economy forward.

Perhaps most important, it’s about creating a culture that will entice IT pros to choose Oshkosh as a place to have a career, rather than as a remote location with unseen clients.

“When you are trying to hire the people who write the code and manage the technology, all goes well until they get here,” Pawlosky says. “We need to show them there are both opportunities and like-minded folks here that will provide that important support network.”

Unfortunately for Northeast Wisconsin, Pawlosky’s experience is not unique.

A common tale

As the demand for IT skills has increased, regional industry leaders have also discovered there is an acute shortage of professionals who can fill the jobs. An informal survey conducted in late 2014 found 240 IT-related job openings at just six major employers in Northeast Wisconsin.

A formal survey conducted in the first half of 2015 confirmed the severity of the challenge. The region is expected to see a gap of nearly 1,300 IT professionals in 2016, a number projected to grow to nearly 3,000 by 2021, costing the region more than $200 million in wages and uncountable lost opportunities for growth.

We are not alone, though, as a lack of IT talent has become a national epidemic. Industry publications note that more than 600,000 jobs were posted in the fourth quarter of 2014. That sector of the economy created more than 116,000 new jobs in 2014 alone.

Northeast Wisconsin will be competing on a national stage to overcome the challenge.

Fortunately for the region, industry and education leaders have reached the same epiphany as Pawlosky.

Collaborative solutions

Working under the umbrella of the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance (NEW ERA, a consortium of the region’s educational institutions) a group of educators, workforce development experts and industry leaders commissioned a detailed study of the talent challenges facing the region. That group has since coalesced into the New North IT Alliance, pursuing a multi-prong strategy to building a robust pipeline that will fill the talent pool in the short term while keeping it topped off for years to come.

“We are not necessarily perceived as a technology space,” says Jeff Lang, CEO of Omni Resources, Appleton, and one of the industry pros driving the IT Alliance effort. “For an entrepreneurial IT professional, this is a great place to have a great career.”

The core elements of the strategy include:

» Education – a longer-term solution that will involve education at all levels from K-12 to the regional colleges and universities.

» Recruitment – This can help fill the gap short term, though we will be competing against other regions, driving up wages.

» Marketing – The region must show itself as a great place to live where a professional can have a successful and diverse career.

What is IT?

One of the greatest challenges they face on all fronts is defining just what an IT professional is.

As information technology has morphed from room-sized mainframes to the desktop PC to the tablet and smartphone, so too has the perceived identity of the technology pro. Thirty years ago, they could be identified as programmers carrying a stack of punch cards and maintaining those room-sized mainframes, but today the identity is not so clear.

Where many companies used to employ a small IT staff that worked across the company, now there are multiple IT and IT-related positions in every department. If it’s hard to tell what an IT professional is, it’s even harder to convince someone an IT career is something they may want to pursue.

“We need people to realize that technology careers are no longer about sitting in a windowless room and writing lines of code,” says Michelle Schuler, director of business development with Excelion Partners, co-founder of the Northeast Wisconsin chapter of Women in Technology and among the core advocates behind the creation of the IT Alliance.

“The field is so broad — whether it’s e-commerce, business analysis, traditional technology or graphic arts — there are many facets and ways we touch and are touched by technology,” she says.

The pace of that technology deployment will only increase, even here in Northeast Wisconsin, where a manufacturing-dominated economy may cause some to think the technology demands are not as great as other regions. Recently released research from PwC found 90 percent of manufacturers nationally are planning to invest in IT technologies over the next 12 to 18 months, according to the Q3 2015 Manufacturing Barometer.

The prevalence of technology in the workplace is an ironic contrast to the growing IT talent gap. Changing perceptions will be an important part of the overall strategy, Lang says, pointing to a smartphone on his desk for a quick demonstration.

“Ask most people what that is and they will say ‘my phone,’” he says. “What it is, really, is an incredibly powerful convergence of computing, networking, photography and GPS technology. We use it every day and we don’t think about what it takes to make all that work. I can log in and run my whole network using this device from almost anywhere.”

Lang often illustrates his point with a postcard he hands out when speaking to student groups that shows the different careers involved in creating the 99- cent apps installed on many smartphones. The careers involved to run them include programmers, graphic designers, marketers and others.

The good news is the region has tremendous assets to support the overall effort.

Quantity counts

The education component of the talent strategy is truly a Dickensian dichotomy.

The region is blessed with a responsive K-12 system interested in ramping up its science, technology and math curriculum in order to would expose students to technology careers earlier. The technical schools and universities have programs already producing a small, though steady, crop of graduates each year.

The problem is there are just not enough students interested in pursuing technology-related degrees.

“I think some of it goes back to the question of just what does an IT worker do,” says Doug Waterman, dean of IT & Learning Innovations at Fox Valley Technical College. “IT used to be something you could put your hands around. Now, we don’t have those clear-cut role models.”

The end result is that by the time Northeast Wisconsin high school students reach their senior year, just 14 percent express an interest in pursuing an IT-related career, according to the IT Talent study. By the time of graduation from a four-year college, the numbers drop to a few dozen, single digits for women.

Technical colleges fared better, graduating nearly 300 in 2014, though fewer than 60 were women.

“It’s pretty common for there to be only two or three of us in my classes,” says Monika Heninger, a senior information systems student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who will graduate in the spring of 2016. “I just don’t think women are aware of the options. I was hesitant myself until I was exposed to a technology class and realized I loved it. We need to show women what IT is before they fall for the stereotype that doesn’t include them.”

Heninger is certainly doing her part, founding a Women in Technology campus chapter at UW-Oshkosh, as well as serving as vice president and treasurer of the Information Science Club.

But the college campus may be too late to reach out to women when it comes to careers in technology. Several recent studies have shown girls begin to lose interest in technology fields by the third grade if technology is not incorporated into the curriculum.

While the numbers are down, the curriculum and programs are seen as a strong foundation that will help    the region meet the challenge as long as the numbers can  be increased.

Already, the technical colleges are reaching out to the K-12 system to provide needed teaching expertise, as well as initiating programs that allow high school students to earn simultaneous college credits. Boot camps and innovation academies that allow high school students to work with mentors in the industry are also expanding.

“It’s a quantity issue, not a quality issue,” Lang says.

Several non-traditional labor pools — from stay-at-home parents seeking to return to the workplace and veterans to the unemployed and working professionals seeking a second career — can also bridge the talent gap for the region. Often, these candidates already have a college degree and can quickly work their way into IT roles such as business analysts that free up traditional IT pros to concentrate on core IT functions.

“We need to show them the path,” Schuler says. “They have many of the skills companies are looking for.”

The upload

As the educational system ramps up to expand the talent pool in the long term, companies working in Northeast Wisconsin still must deal with the shortage that exists today. That involves recruiting from other regions and states.

The region gets a bit of an assist here from human nature. While it’s common for many recent college grads to move away in pursuit of “working in the big city,” many cherish the area as a great place to grow up and will return when they are ready to start families of their own.

While that’s helpful, regional companies can’t wait five to 15 years for talented professionals to return to the area. The region also needs to become a destination for young professionals from other areas of the state.

That’s where the Fox Cities Regional Partnership’s Talent Upload program comes into play. The recruiting program brings talented professionals to the Fox Cities to meet with company leaders, learn about company culture and experience the amenities of life in Northeast Wisconsin. A relatively new tool in the arsenal, the program recently won a national award and has piqued the interest of national site selector magazines as an innovative talent program.

“What it really does is create an awareness of the region as well as the companies and opportunities that are here,” says Paul Mueller, chief information officer at Thrivent. “It creates a positive experience they take back with them and tell others about, which increases the interest in our region.”

Thrivent has enjoyed tremendous success through the program, with at least one full-time hire since its inception and several prospects it continues to keep in contact with.

Given the nature of young professionals, who will often choose a lifestyle and location before deciding which company they will work for, the importance of cultural assets that appeal to this demographic increases in importance.

In the past few years, young professional groups from Green Bay and Appleton to Fond du Lac to the lakeshore have been actively working on events and cultural assets that appeal to young professionals. That work has manifested itself in a range of activities, including restaurant weeks, alley art projects and informal kickball leagues.

All play an important role in attracting young professionals of all types, including IT, to the region.

Selling it

But that only works if the target audience gets the message. A collaborative marketing campaign will be the critical coding that binds the entire strategy together.

Shedding the region’s modesty and best-kept-secret approach is a must, Schuler says.

“We are going to need to play by different rules,” she says. “We need to get the message out about the fun    things that are part of our culture here, both from the companies and the community. There is a lot going on tech-wise, and a lot of great things to experience outside of work. We need to connect those two things and brand the community.”

The players involved agree it must be a collaborative effort. Drawing on the lessons learned from the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, which set out to  change the image of manufacturing in the region several years ago, the IT Alliance is also leveraging its combined assets and networks.

The messaging is pretty clear: Northeast Wisconsin is a great place to have a great IT career.

“We want them to say ‘How do I get in?’” Schuler says. “That’s the place I want to be.”

Game on!

Coding, gaming challenges grow interest in IT careers

A few lines of code can have a powerful impact.

Indeed, they can do so much more than perfect that killer app that makes your work or social life easier. A few lines of code can awaken a young student to a lifetime of career possibilities.

Unfortunately, the word “coding” can often conjure up negative stereotypes in the mind of students and — perhaps more importantly — parents. Thoughts of windowless rooms and odd working hours can spring to minds, hardly the stuff to attract someone to an IT career.

But those perceptions can change when object of that coding turns out to be a lot of fun.

That’s the premise behind Omni Resources’ Code-a-Copter program, which challenges students to see if they can successfully write code to make a remote control helicopter fly.

“It’s opened the minds of several to a possible career in IT,” says Jeff Lang, president and CEO of Omni Resources.

Omni uses the Code-a-Copter as one of its outreach programs to interest students from third to fifth grade in skills that could lead to an IT based career. They recently presented the program to more than children attending That Conference – an IT event billed as “summer camp for geeks.”

“It created a lot of energy and engagement,” says Lang. “We plan to take this to area schools, Boys & Girls Clubs – anywhere we can.”

Reaching out to students is one of the core pillars in bridging the growing IT talent gap.

Omni also used That Conference to roll out Fans of Fury, a foosball type game where players attempt to score goals by using fans to blow the ball across the playing field. The fans speed and direction are controlled by signals picked by wearing a brainwave headset.

“Interest in IT is a lot higher when this is how it’s perceived,” Lang says.