Silicon Slopes—The targeted career pathways programs started with aerospace, quickly followed by diesel mechanics and medical device manufacturing. Now, an IT Pathways Program is in the works.
On Wednesday Gov. Gary Herbert announced he has directed his economic development office to convene a working group to build a program that will give high school students the opportunity to begin developing job-ready IT skills in high school.
Industry and education leaders spoke during the announcement presentation, many pointing to the deep need for skilled IT workers in Utah.
“We need and want more talent to fill the many, many jobs we have created and will create in the state,” said Vance Checketts, vice president and general manager of Dell EMC.
Herbert noted that Utah’s IT sector already employs nearly 70,000 workers, but is growing at a brisk clip of 7.69 percent—the fastest tech-sector growth rate in the nation. With a statewide unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, every industry is finding it harder to recruit workers, he said, but the need has become particularly sharp in the tech industry.
The career pathway programs were developed to build a talent pipeline, starting in high school, for skilled jobs. They bring together industry players with education—including public school districts and the full range of higher education institutions—to create a program that includes classes and hands-on internships. When participants complete the training, they have job-ready skills and experience.
Industry involvement is key, said Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College. She said the success of a pathways program depends in large part on the willingness of companies to provide paid internships, mentoring and other resources.
When creating the Aerospace Pathway, Huftalin said, “Industry made some promises to us for our students: ‘Hey, we’ll give your students paid internships.’ I’ll tell you something—Salt Lake Community College students are working full time. They have families; they’ve got children. They can’t do an [unpaid] internship just because it looks good on their résumé. … So industry helping with that kind of incentive was remarkable for our students. Because if you want diversity, and you want lower-income students to access these jobs, you’re going to have to find out how financially to help them get those experiences in a really robust way.”
Checketts said the tech industry is ready and willing to provide those opportunities. “We are rallying resources, we are rallying people,” he said. “The industry is engaged and ready to get behind this new, coalescing initiative.”
Employers are no longer focused on four-year degrees, said Huftalin. Instead, they are looking for people with proven skills. “[Employers] need a certain skill set, and they don’t necessarily care if they have a credit and a certificate or degree attached to that. So to the extent that you can create currency around a non-credit industry certification as an employer, as an HR office, that speaks volumes to students. If they understand that they can be employable, that they can earn a living wage and that there’s advancement opportunities in a non-credit environment, that’s very, very helpful.”
The pathways programs tie into the concept of stackable credentials, wherein students can start by earning a certificate, then go on to earn an associate’s degree and then perhaps a bachelor’s—or as high up the academic ladder as they want to go. But, said Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University, it all starts with job-focused skills that allow students to participate in the workforce during or between their educational pursuits.
Many high school students—and their parents—need to better understand what careers are available in the tech sector. Cathy Donahoe, director of human resources for Domo, emphasized that not all tech jobs are coding jobs, In fact, she said, nearly every job now requires some level of tech training. Even functions like sales and customer service heavily rely on software platforms and processes.
“Even an automotive technician now needs to have software expertise,” she said. “There are lots of jobs in tech, and tech isn’t just a software engineer.”
The success of the pathways programs depends on the cooperation of local school districts, companies, technical colleges, the community college and four-year colleges.
“Our secret sauce in this state is collaboration,” said Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Huftalin said that competition between schools “went away” as they began working together on the earlier pathways programs. “We have phenomenal relationships across the state,” she said.
In a state with limited resources and large families, said Herbert, “we’ve got to unite and focus our efforts educationally to make sure that we’re training the workforce of tomorrow today. And that’s got to be a seamless effort and everybody in our educational system has a significant role to play, and I appreciate that they are stepping up to do that.”