Schools, agencies respond as supply of workers trails IT demand

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Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2013 12:00 am

His parents thought it was kind of crazy, going to college to study computers. Shouldn't he become a doctor or an architect? But Edgar Vazquez says he got into the right field at the right time when he majored in computer science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduating in December.

The 24-year-old software developer, who works at an Omaha engineering firm, and others like him are some of the most sought-after workers in Omaha today. Businesses from tech startups to banks to engineering firms are in hot pursuit of information technology workers as they compete to better connect with customers, learn from complex industry data and empower their employees with more useful software and devices.

“By far, any of those IT positions are the hardest to fill,” said Marsha Graesser, human resources director at Woodmen of the World. “Everyone nationwide is fighting over good IT people.”

A survey this summer of 245 Omaha-area firms found that nine in 10 believe there is an inadequate supply of IT workers in the area, whether it's a sheer lack of employees or a mismatch between the needed and the available skills, according to AIM, the Omaha technology institute that conducted the survey.

That view prevails at a time when the metro-area IT workforce has nearly recovered to pre-recession employment levels, with 7,200 employed, and when the state's universities are seeing IT-related enrollment back to levels of the dot-com era of the early 2000s.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has more than 660 computer engineering and computer science majors, similar to 2003, and up from a recent low of around 400 in 2007. The trend is similar at UNO, where the College of Information Science & Technology this fall has more than 1,000 students for the first time in 10 years, with the goal of hitting 1,500 by 2017. Metro Community College has about 6,400 students in IT-related classes, a drop from a high of about 7,500 during the recession when students flooded community colleges.

AIM said the total number of IT and computer science degrees and certificates awarded in Nebraska spiked to 1,788 for the 2011-12 academic year, more than doubling from the previous year. The jump was anticipated, AIM said, after enrollment grew in the recession.

Several efforts are underway to better understand the issue and widen the pipeline of IT workers.

AIM and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce next week will jointly survey by email hundreds of area businesses about their IT and engineering industry needs.

“We want to dig into this issue further,” said Levi Thiele, research director at AIM.

In the spring, AIM is considering providing retraining opportunities to help existing IT workers update their skills for business' current needs.

The Nebraska Department of Economic Development also is gearing up to help. IT was identified as a workforce need in a 2010 study from consulting firm Battelle. The department this year hired an IT “cluster coordinator” who is convening a statewide industry council this fall to study issues including workforce needs and identify solutions.

UNO officials say they are working on all fronts to meet the local demand for IT employees. The university's initiatives include: an effort to draft more women into the IT field, a high school teacher training program, the Techademy program for students 11 to 16, the IT professional Development Academy for those working in the field, a new eight-week high school IT internship program and the new IT Innovation Cup competition for high school students.

For employers, change can't happen soon enough.

Lincoln firm Hudl, which makes video analysis software for sports teams, held a hiring event in Omaha two weeks ago. HR manager Adam Parrish said the turnout of more than 50 people exceeded his expectations, but fewer than half the people were interested in the technical positions he has the hardest time filling.

“With the growth mode that Hudl is in, we really can't find those people fast enough,” he said. The firm of 107 hopes to add 40 technical employees by the end of next year, including software developers and quality assurance analysts.

This summer, Parrish changed the incentives he offers staff for referring potential hires. It used to be he offered a $1,000 bonus to employees who referred someone who was hired; now he uses a point system to award smaller amounts of money for steps along the way, such as if an employee refers someone who submits a resume or is interviewed.

“We didn't feel like it was going far enough,” he said.

Parrish hands out the bonus checks in gold envelopes during Hudl's Tuesday morning all-staff meetings. Hudl also offers perks like free lunches daily and unlimited vacation to appeal to IT workers, who several employers said are in a position to demand flexible workplace rules.

“The best engineers have the choice of where they want to work,” said Dusty Davidson, founder of the Flywheel web hosting service. He said startups' deliberately noncorporate culture is attractive to those who prefer flexibility compared with firms where “you have to wear a button-up shirt and slacks every day and be there at 8 in the morning.”

Woodmen is thinking of doubling its referral bonus for employees who recommend someone who is hired, Graesser said. The firm has 120 employees in its business technology division, adding about 10 of those in the last year.

Woodmen doesn't have the hip quotient of a startup, Graesser said, which can be a drawback, but it does offer good benefits and the opportunity to help an established firm compete by bringing in new technology.

“We appeal to people who want to make a long-term difference in the organization,” said Jerry Smolinski, vice president of the business technology division, who last week held a pancake breakfast as a token of appreciation to his staff. He'd like to see universities ramp up the number of graduates and said he is working internally to help employees update their skills.

“I think the market will be tight for a while,” Smolinski said.

Small and medium-sized firms compete for workers with IT-hiring powerhouses Union Pacific, ConAgra, First Data and other big employers. First Data said a fifth of its 5,000 Omaha employees are IT workers, and it has more than 60 openings in IT, from interns to managers.

“Having a solid foundation of technology talent is important to First Data since Omaha is a critical technology center for us in the U.S.,” spokeswoman Nancy Etheredge said.

Etheredge said she couldn't yet share details, but First Data is working with UNO on a new partnership to help solve the supply problem.

Omaha IT staffing and solutions firm Client Resources Inc. also sees a workforce shortage but is able to fill IT positions within 30 days, CEO Sue Thaden said. That's because eight of the firm's 195 employees are devoted solely to recruiting. They are now hiring more than 18 technical staff members each month.

Thaden, who serves on several industry boards, said employers have a responsibility to contribute to workforce development by volunteering as mentors and guest lecturers at universities and providing real-world projects for college students to work on in addition to internships.

She said UNO's efforts are “phenomenal” and as a community, “We have to keep the pedal to the metal in generating awareness” among youths of the potential in IT careers.

One UNO graduate she hired last year is Stephanie Petersen, an Omaha North High School graduate who said that despite an interest in computers, she wasn't aware growing up about opportunities in IT. Now with degrees in IT innovation and computer science, she said, “It's really nice to get out of college and actually have some options for different positions I could take, all with substantial pay.”

Current UNO student Emily Pachunka, 19, an Omaha Skutt High School graduate, also was unaware of the available degrees when she planned to go to UNO and study biology as part of a pre-med path. While researching scholarships, she discovered bioinformatics and is now enrolled in classes like Java 2 programming and “Organizations, Applications and Technology” along with her traditional science classes.

She said proudly, “Oh my gosh, I'm a complete computer nerd now.”

“People think that taking technology classes nowadays is just learning how to program, but there is so much more involved,” she said. “You can learn about databases and mobile apps and so many other aspects of technology that are applicable to a wide variety of careers.”

UNO officials are working to dispel that myth that IT is an isolated discipline. “The next generation of IT professionasl are going to be the ones that empower other disciplines,” said College of Information Science & Technology Dean Hesham Ali.

The pay is attractive too, he said: graduates of UNO earn about $15,000 more on average than graduates of the university's other colleges.

For his role at Schnackel Engineering, Vazquez, the first in his family to graduate from college, earns about $50,000 a year, has paid off his 2010 Camaro and plans to help his parents pay off their debt before moving into a place of his own. And now his mother and father, immigrants from Mexico who work in meatpacking and construction, are “very grateful” for Vazquez's degree and career despite being skeptical initially.

His older brother, a Navy veteran, is now studying computer science at UNO, looking for the same success. IT isn't compelling to everyone in the family, though: Vazquez's younger brother, also at UNO, is taking a path in less demand. “He's an English major.”

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