Education: Making the right connections

Collaborative program provides hands-on IT experience to boost interest

Posted on Mar 1, 2016 :: Insight On
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Rustin Keller just won’t accept what the numbers say.

There is a particular number that’s been bugging him for a while, and it involves a topic near and dear to his heart. The number is 14 percent, which represents the number of students in Northeast Wisconsin interested in pursuing a career in information technology once they reach high school, according to a recent IT talent study conducted by the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance.

As a growing IT talent gap tightens its grip around the region, Keller knows more must be done to change that number before the regional economy is irreparably harmed.

“That is the statistic that has just been bugging me, that just 14 percent of students after grade 8 want anything to do with IT,” says Keller, executive vice president and chief operating officer at J. J. Keller & Associates and a member of the Northeast Wisconsin IT task force. “If we want to change those percentages, we need to get to the kids earlier. We need to get to them in sixth and seventh grade.”

It was a tour of the new Boys & Girls Club of the Fox Valley in Menasha that sparked an opportunity to do just that. During that visit, Keller got to talking with Boys & Girls Club CEO Greg Lemke-Rochon about programs that could expose the target demographic to the opportunities and skills involved in IT.

Megabites, the resulting collaboration, launched at Appleton’s Roosevelt Middle School in February with 35 students from the Boys & Girls Club’s after school program there. Twice a week, the students will explore multiple facets of the IT industry, from programming to animation to web design.

With financing provided by the J.J. Keller Foundation, the new program combines the expertise and resources of Fox Valley Technical College, the Boys & Girls Club and the Appleton School District.

“While we’ve had the technology and programs, what we have lacked in the past was the expertise,” Lemke-Rochon says of the new program. “FVTC will bring the expertise and we can deliver that education during non-school hours.”

The student interest caught educators a bit off guard.

“We were expecting 12 to 15 and we got 35,” says Dan Kretz, an instructor in information technology at FVTC. “We really plan to do this like Google — there are no rules. We’ll have different teams working on different projects and they can move from team to team.”

If all goes well, Lemke-Rochon can see the program expanding.

“We have to find ways to get these kids more hands-on experience. That’s how they learn,” he says.

That learning is imperative for the region.

In addition to identifying the low numbers interested in pursuing IT as a career, the NEW ERA study also detected a current IT professional deficit of nearly 2,900 positions, which represents an estimated $209 million in lost income if industry has to hire those knowledge workers remotely. 

The NEW ERA study recommended a collaborative strategy among educators, industry and other groups to bridge the gap both long- and short-term. As industry ramps up its recruiting effort and outreach, both the K-12 and secondary education systems are tweaking and expanding their offerings.

In addition to battling stereotypes of IT professionals as folks who sit in windowless offices and cubicles writing code, the study recommended that exposure at earlier ages and across genders could also help expand the talent pool. There are several girls in the initial group at Roosevelt. 

Megabites brings all the parties together in a new collaborative program that has already attracted attention outside the region, including a visit by Gov. Scott Walker the week the program launched. “Not only is IT interesting to the students, it’s a field in demand,” Walker says. “This is relevant not only for a career, but it touches many aspects of what our companies do. They need that talent coming.”

The curriculum, which includes components from the Boys & Girls Club and lessons developed by FVTC instructors, relies heavily on spurring the students’ sense of exploration
to introduce them to a range of IT career paths.

“IT has changed a lot from its perception,” says Kretz. “We want to make them aware of all those different career options.”