Now hiring — a lot

The region’s resources are coalescing to close our IT talent gap

Forget the stereotypes of antisocial nerds with pocket protectors. Today’s IT workers range from tech hipsters to buttoned-down corporate types and typically earn above-average salaries that enable them to live enviable lifestyles.

Which begs the question: Why are Nashville-area employers still unable to fill more than 700 technology jobs?

The fact that so many high-paying jobs are vacant — in a state where about 8 percent of the workforce is unemployed — is the Nashville region’s biggest workplace issue, says Matt Largen, who is in charge of economic development for Williamson County.

“The biggest danger we face as a region is the lack of depth in the IT field,” says Largen, who is part of an effort to build a pipeline of talent within Middle Tennessee.

Organizations taking part in that effort include Williamson County Schools, the Nashville Technology Council, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, various other professional organizations and the WISTEM (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Center at Middle Tennessee State University. The shortage of tech workers is being felt worldwide, says Liza Lowery Massey, president and CEO of the Tech Council, and the local dynamic is actually rooted in a positive trend.

“Here in Nashville, the issue has become acute due to the significant increase in the number of available tech jobs. We even weathered the recent recession quite well in terms of the tech industry,” she says.

The Tech Council is working to hire a full-time tech workforce development coordinator. In addition, organizations trying to solve the riddle of why a career in tech isn’t attracting more workers have developed a five-pillar plan, says Massey.

The first is an effort to “organically grow” the talent pool in universities, high schools and lower grades. The Tech Council has at least 100 volunteers working on this effort. The other pillars are out-of-area recruitment of tech workers —the Nashville Chamber is finalizing a campaign that will launch early next year — the establishment of accelerated or nontraditional training programs to move unemployed or underemployed workers into tech jobs, employer education about what it takes to attract and keep tech workers in today’s market and help for existing tech workers to keep their skills up to date.

More employers also are participating in events like South by Southwest, the music, film and interactive conference held in Austin each year, “and realizing that they are the best ambassadors for this area,” says Massey.

The good news is that efforts by the Tech Council, Largen’s team, the Nashville Chamber, Williamson County Schools, WISTEM and others already appear to be paying off. After averaging 1,000 in the previous six quarters, the Tech Council’s Q2 survey showed “only” 728 jobs unfilled. Given the boom in start-ups and overall momentum among other emerging tech players, it’s unlikely that drop is the result of flagging demand.

Changing the mentality

Williamson County’s public schools are taking a leading role in growing the tech workforce. Beginning in the eighth grade, the school system is measuring students’ aptitude for technology. Come ninth grade, they can take technology-oriented classes that prepare them to study computer science in college or for an IT certification that doesn’t require a four-year degree.

The effort hasn’t been without controversy, says Largen, particularly among parents who worry about their children being placed on a blue-collar career track.

“It still has the mentality of being vo-tech or shop” since some participating students might decide not to go to college, says Largen. But today’s IT technicians probably enjoy more career stability — and higher incomes — than some college graduates.

“You can make a compelling case to parents to help their kids find a career that doesn’t require them to move back in with them,” he says.

Overcoming ingrained stereotypes can also be a challenge.

“Tell your kids looking for a job to give IT a chance,” says Largen. “It’s not what it used to be — the guy with the pocket protector or the lonely kids who spend all their time on the computer.”

Recruiting students to study technology, particularly women, isn’t always easy even at the college level, says Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross, director of the WISTEM Center at MTSU.

“For women in computer science, that number is dropping,” she says. “We don’t know why. That’s the thing.”

Women are the majority of students on many campuses, but nationally they earned just 18.5 percent of undergraduate degrees in engineering in 2008, the latest year for which Iriarte-Gross had numbers. Only slightly over 25 percent of undergraduate degrees in math and computer science went to women despite the economic opportunities those fields promise.

“In STEM, they can command a higher income, and that means a better economic future for their families,” she says.

WISTEM offers a variety of programs to capture the imaginations of women and girls including the GRITS (Girls Raised in Tennessee Science) initiative to encourage them to consider a career in science, technology, engineering or math. GRITS works with PTAs, the Girls Scouts and other organizations to interest girls in STEM at an early age. In addition, the university recently held its 16th annual Expanding Your Horizons conference to encourage women and girls to consider careers in science and math.

Many young women are still steered into more traditional, “feminine” careers, says Mary Thomas, the chairman of the WISTEM board.

“For women, you still have to get past the old-fashioned thought that women are nurses, do business activities. They are not scientists,” she said.
Young women who want a career in tech have to overcome cruel stereotypes, says Thomas, an executive with the Rutherford County operation of Schneider Electric, the global energy management company.

“They are not nerds. They are not the ugliest girls in the room. That’s the stereotype some girls have,” she says.

Thomas recently counted the number of women engineers working in one department of the company. Of 150 people, four were women.

“As for software, I know of one female software engineer,” she says.

Bad timing

The shortage of IT professionals is being felt at the moment Middle Tennessee businesses need them more than ever. The mid-state may not be home to a high-profile technology company like Google or Facebook, but every employer in the region, from health care and manufacturing to retailing, relies on technology.

“Community Health Systems (the Brentwood-based hospital chain) and Nissan may not be tech companies, but they have a lot of people in tech,” says Largen.

Thomas says greater use of computer technology is “the wave of the future at traditional companies” like Schneider Electric.

“All the brainstorming is going to require software to get it done,” she says. “The automobile companies have done it. You have a computer running your car. We’d like that for our equipment.”

The traction being generated on various fronts regionally is bringing that wish closer to reality.