Monday, July 23, 2018
Business

Coalition aims to identify, plug critical skill gaps to boost tech jobs

Tampa Bay area businesses eager to expand are complaining that they cannot find enough people with the right technology skills.

The response? Tampa Bay economic development groups have launched an initiative called the "technology skills gap project." It aims to identify the specific tech skills needed by area companies, find ways to train and give work experience to more people in those skills, and convince schools, community colleges and universities here to talk more to companies about job needs.

The pitch? How can the area recruit new business when even local companies — whether it's the parent of the Outback Steakhouse chain, Raymond James Financial or hundreds of smaller companies — can't fill their growing tech positions?

The lofty goal? To help energize the job market while presenting the greater Tampa Bay region as one of the more cutting edge players in technology.

Oh yeah. This ambitious project also seeks to be far enough along so that it can intelligently discuss ways to raise the bar on technology skills and jobs during the Republican National Convention here in late August. That's when a lot of Tampa Bay business leaders want to show off the region's best attributes in a live, hosted Internet show called Front Row Tampa Bay.

"On the one hand, we are afraid to broadcast the message that there is a gap (of tech skills) and some companies have trouble finding the right talent," says Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. "At the same time, unless this gets addressed as a critical issue, key institutions in the community will not put this at the top of the list to address."

At this point, the project leaders say Tampa Bay has a tech skills gap but concede they are not sure if it is any bigger than those found in other U.S. metro areas.

"Clearly we are not alone," Homans says. But he wants the Tampa Bay area to set itself apart by finding smarter ways to solve the problem.

Some tech jobs may be more easily filled if high schools, community colleges or private companies offered certification courses in technologies like specific programming languages. Other jobs that call for five or 10 years of experience and broader computer skills may require universities and companies to work together to create internships or apprenticeships to enable young tech workers to gain more of those hands-on skills.

Patricia Gehant, former technology manager with the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas County, recently joined the Tampa Hillsborough EDC to lead the tech skills gap project. She says this effort is different from dealing with typical skill-and-job mismatches because information technology needs transcend single industries. Both short- and long-term solutions will be needed.

A short-term fix may involve finding ways to keep university graduates with relevant tech skills in this area, she says. Longer-term solutions include talking to students as young as middle school about technology opportunities and what kinds of jobs are out there.

In addition to the regional participation of both the Tampa Hillsborough EDC and its counterpart in Pinellas County, this initiative is spearheaded by the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, WorkNet Pinellas and its sister Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, as well as the Florida High Tech Corridor.

"We have tech firms in garages all the way up to global companies like Jabil Circuit and Tech Data, and they all agree there are not enough people with IT skills," says TBTF CEO Heather Kenyon. Among tech workers here the jobless rate is close to 2 percent, she says. "We don't want that impeding growth in this area."

Ed Peachey, who heads both WorkNet Pinellas and the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, says the planned business survey of technology skills will help shape the project. But, he cautions, projecting growth in specific jobs is tricky.

"Five years ago, when the construction industry was still busy, a labor market report said we'd need more tile and marble setters," Peachey says. Then the recession hit. "Now they're all driving trucks."

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]

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