We have lift-off: Now a broad Tampa Bay team will try to build better technology workforce
Wake up and good morning. It used to take a village but when it comes to getting its technology workforce up to snuff and prepared to grow, it will take the entire Tampa Bay region. That's one of the key messages generated by a Thursday morning gathering by economic development, business and education leaders assembled to explain -- and sell -- the key recommendations in a newly completed, sharply focused analysis of how to fix this region's mismatch between a supply of tech workers that is too thin and out of step with the demand of big and small companies seeking specific IT skills.
Here's my initial Tampa Bay Times column about that report written before this Thursday morning gathering. And here's the link to the entire report. Let's just add some flesh to the bones of what's happening based on a nearly 2-hour discussion, held Thursday at the Franklin Templeton complex in Carillon, that drew roughly a hundred people. A few observations.
1. Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Rick Homans (left) instigated this tech workforce study after hearing from various industry folks that finding IT people was getting harder and could hurt the regional economy without some action. Specifically, Homans pointed to a conversation with Bayshore Solutions chief Kevin Hourigan early this year where Homans learned Bayshore, which does Web development, was opening an office in Denver -- in part to better service clients out west but also to better tap tech talent in another (hotter) market because Tampa Bay talent was getting harder to find.
2. From the get go, Homans has made it clear that the tech workforce study was an equal partnership between his Hillsborough County and Pinellas County, represented by Pinellas economic development director Mike Meidel (right). At Thursday's meeting, for example, Bayshore's Hourigan pointed out that he and Vology Data Systems CEO Barry Shevlin (also attending) lived out on the Pinellas beaches but ran companies in Hillsborough. The point? A study that did not cover the both key counties in Tampa Bay was like baking only half a cake.
3. Homans, Meidel and Ed Peachey (who runs both WorkNet Pinellas and the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance) are not about to stop with this tech workforce report. They like the template of a regionwide analysis of how to improve the area workforce in specific sectors and they are already launching the next study: On advanced manufacturing. Stay tuned.
4. One of the BIG challenges in making the workforce recommendations real will fall to Heather Kenyon (left), CEO of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, whose tech advocacy group suddenly becomes the key player in the next phase of this ambitious project. Where to start? The recommendations of the study call for drastically beefing up apprenticeships and internships at area businesses so that young and retraining tech workers get real world experience at the same time they are getting tech certifications in area school programs or finishing 4-year degrees. The study also seeks student chapters of TBTF at all the major schools and universities (USF St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College appear to be leading the way on this so far) to provide networking opportunities for young tech students to the wealth of experience that TBTF's 300-plus members bring to the table.
The good news is that Pat Gehant, who led the effort to assemble this tech workforce report, is moving over from the Tampa Hillsborough EDC to TBTF and will be a key player in pushing the study recommendations. So far, $50,000 has been raised to help fund Gehant's contract work with TBTF and another $50,000 is being sought to complete that funding. I asked Kenyon if TBTF's most critical role in all this is to act as a clearinghouse of information between the area tech industry and the many educational providers of tech training so that everybody stays on the right path. Kenyon prefers the word "conduit" but the answer is yes. That is a big part of TBTF's challenging task. Kenyon, ever enthusiastic, is not worried and credits her innate Chutzpah as a top credential in getting this most important job done.
5. Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Stuart Rogel (right) also addressed the Thursday gathering with the broader reminder that improving Tampa Bay's tech workforce can pay massive dividends in job growth and the wider perception of opportunities in this region by businesses seeking to relocate or expand. Every metro area has a tech skills challenge, Rogel said, so they real issue is which regions are trying to do something about it? He also said this tech initiative will help fuel the regional business plan that the partnership has been pitching in recent years. It seeks to concentrate economic development in four distinct industry clusters -- from applied medicine and high tech electronics to marine science activities -- all of which have high demands for advanced IT skills.
6. Last and hard least, a panel of educators discussed their roles and challenges in delivering more and better trained workers versed in the specific capabilities of software programming, web development, project development and mobile apps that every company seems to be clamoring for. Representing the K-12 student world was Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia, who offered a critical insight that building a strong future technology workforce means a passion for tech has to be ignited in young people long before they get out of high school and probably middle school. Getting businesses involved in the classrooms to help generate that enthusiasm is a must, she advised. Young students on their own do not think of technology as a career path. St. Petersburg College's dean of computer & information technology Dr. Sharon Setterlind and Hillsborough Community College senior vp Rob Wolf rattled off already extensive training programs for tech students but welcomes more industry input.
And from Tampa, University of South Florida College of Business dean Moez Limayem (right) offered the more philosophical pitch that he's worked on multiple continents but never seen such a coming together to tackle a workforce issue as he has seen in Tampa Bay. You need two hands to clap, Limayem said, suggesting that industry is one hand and area schools the other hand. Only when they come together, can they make a lot of noise.
Now, to harness all that meeting's goodwill and make things happen.
-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times