Computer science

Computer science classes at UW-Madison are packed as demand for coding skills moves into other fields.

Young people are natives when it comes to using technology, from smartphones to tablets, and from social media to video games, but they can be aliens when it comes to working in tech jobs.

Despite the coast-to-coast glut of well-paying jobs in tech professions such as coding, cybersecurity and network management, the pipeline of potential workers is much smaller than what observers would prefer.

With experts predicting there will soon be eight information technology jobs for every qualified applicant, how does the process of training people — the workforce “supply” — keep pace with the demands of industry in virtually every sector?

Four-year colleges and tech colleges in Wisconsin and elsewhere are making strides, but the need for qualified workers now is capturing the attention of two other groups: for-profit colleges that are well positioned to produce qualified students, and federal and state policymakers.

Tom Still

Tom Still

Steve Gunderson, who represented Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District for 16 years, is president of the Washington-based Career Education Colleges and Universities, an association that represents some of the nation’s 2,700 private, for-profit schools. Some of these accredited schools are focused on careers in medical professions, cosmetology, culinary arts and automotive skills, but a growing number are specializing in tech professions.

“We’re not competing with schools such as the UW-Madison and its computer sciences department,” Gunderson said. “We’re more about a different kind of student who wants to earn credentials in a given amount of time, to find a job, or to enhance the jobs they’re already doing.”

A growing area is cybersecurity, where needs are exploding in sectors ranging from retail to financial to health care.

One of the leading producers of cybersecurity talent is the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz., which has been producing graduates in the field since 1998 — before cybersecurity was a common term. It was called “network defense” at the time.

“All we do is tech,” said UAT President Jason Pistillo, a self-described “tech geek” whose school has produced about 5,000 graduates in 20 programs over time through an intense and unique curriculum. Students have hailed from all 50 states and are hired almost as soon as they’re done.

“On any given day, there are 10 jobs for every one of our students,” he said. The demand is especially high in cybersecurity, where 30 percent of UAT graduates have classified credentials and another 20 percent work in jobs where there are non-disclosure agreements in place.

“You can’t swing a stick without hitting one of our (cybersecurity) graduates,” Pistillo said.

He laments the lack of college students studying technology and has worked in Arizona and beyond to build a younger base of students, giving away about 1,200 computers over time and working with K-12 districts on curriculum, coding camps and more.

The talent shortage is why federal and state policymakers seem intent on closing the gap. In Congress, a bipartisan bill that shows promise for states such as Wisconsin is the CHANCE in Tech Act. That’s an acronym for Championing Apprenticeships for New Careers and Employees in Technology.

The bill is a recognition that tech apprenticeships in the United States are largely a patchwork of programs that don’t always result in certificates that are “portable” from one workplace to another. It would instruct the U.S. Department of Labor to award contracts to industry intermediaries to develop apprenticeships in tech; define how those intermediaries — such as colleges of all types — would work with business; and make apprenticeships available to high school students, early college science and tech students and post-secondary students.

It recognizes that IT professions don’t require a four-year college degree and jobs can be filled with a skilled workforce that has other certified training.

In Wisconsin, several bills have been introduced to encourage more internships and to support “upskilling” of people quickly through what is described as “micro-credentials” in hard-to-fill fields.

Whether it is Congress or the Wisconsin Legislature, there can be partisan hurdles to finding solutions. With worker shortages looming in so many critical tech fields, let’s hope those differences give way to action.

Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Email: tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

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