Learning to fish digitally

TEALS program aims to create sustainable IT talent pipeline in NE Wisconsin

Posted on Nov 1, 2017 :: Technology
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Erin Draheim has always believed in sharing her IT knowledge.

A senior software engineer with Skyline Technologies, Draheim says her discovery of programming in high school opened a world of opportunities for her, and she wants to make sure others have that same chance. She is particularly interested in getting girls and children involved.

No surprise, then, that she has been a dedicated volunteer in the Hortonville schools, helping with technology programs wherever and whenever she can. Naturally, when Hortonville High School was selected to participate in Microsoft Corp.’s TEALS program, she eagerly lent her expertise to both the Advanced Placement coding class and to the teaching staff to upgrade its expertise.

If successful, not only will Northeast Wisconsin students do well on the AP exam, but the region will have improved its ability to expand the IT talent pipeline to meet industry demands.

“The goal is to create a self-sustaining program,” Draheim says of the benefits of TEALS. “In a couple of years, these teachers will have the knowledge needed, and I can lend my time elsewhere, either here or in another school.”

Microsoft introduced its TEALS — Technology Education and Literacy in Schools — program to Wisconsin this past year to help educators fill a dangerously low-flowing talent pipeline in the IT industry in the region, state, and country.

Nationally, it is estimated there are nearly 50,000 unfilled jobs in the computer and information technology sectors, a number that is expected to grow more than 1.7 million. At the same time, just under 43,000 students earn computer science degrees each year.

Regionally, research conducted for the NEW IT Alliance found that by 2020, there will be approximately 4,000 unfilled jobs in Northeast Wisconsin with the region’s current talent pipeline throughput. In 2016, unfilled IT positions are estimated to have cost the region $91 million in payroll. By 2021, those lost earnings will reach $203 million.

The region needs more IT talent and must compete with the rest of the country to find it.

That’s anything but easy for the school systems charged with training that talent. A reflection of the industry, technology teaching talent is in short supply, and a school might land a teacher for one year only to have him or her poached by a larger district offering more money the next.

“The districts are facing the same challenges as the rest of the industry,” Kim Iversen, executive director of the NEW IT Alliance, says. “It’s a huge problem for them and the industry.”

That’s where the TEALS program comes into play. Microsoft created TEALS to provide grants, technology, a proven curriculum and resources to nonprofits and partner schools to improve digital skills and computer science programs. But at its core, it features the pairing of working professionals with teachers in the classroom to learn how to develop and teach the skills needed.

“It’s going to give us that knowledge that will help us fill the pipeline,” Iversen says. “There is still no certification, and that may be an opportunity for the Alliance to help.”

1117_Technology_2Of the 13 state schools that joined the program in its first year in Wisconsin, 10 of them are from Northeast Wisconsin.

“Given the current, and growing, shortage of IT talent needed to drive our economy, TEALS is a welcome approach,” Paul Mueller, chief information officer, Thrivent Financial, says. “It will accelerate the development of the talent we need while investing in the futures of our students.”

TEALS is one component of Microsoft’s larger TechSpark Initiative announced in early October that will include Brown and Outagamie counties as one of the initial six areas the civic program will target to help foster greater economic opportunity and job creation. The TEALS program includes schools outside of those two counties.

But like TechSpark, one of the aims is to help smaller metropolitan and rural areas bridge the resource and knowledge gap.

“(The volunteers) have brought real-world IT experiences into the classroom and engaged the students in the real-world application of IT solutions,” says Aaron Casper, business education teacher at Denmark High School. “I think for a small school of about 466, our students are getting a head start in any business and technology career they choose to pursue.”

It’s real-world experience the volunteers who are helping with the program are only too happy to share. If they shatter a few myths about working in technology along the way, so much the better.

“I like to show them that it’s really just problem-solving,” Draheim says. “There are a lot of negative perceptions about coding and IT, but that’s really what it comes down to — how can we solve this problem.”