Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Opinion

Skills shortage hurts bay area IT hiring

Tampa Bay's information technology industry is booming, growing faster than most other sectors in Florida and serving up higher-wage jobs: The average IT professional's salary, at $69,771, is 70 percent higher than the state's average wage. Even more promising: For each IT position filled, another 1.54 jobs are created. With employers estimating a 16 percent increase in new IT positions through 2019, the prospects for job seekers and growth for local companies certainly looks bright, right?

Perhaps.

Tampa Bay is facing a major IT workforce skills gap. Companies of all sizes in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties reported more than 4,000 open positions for IT jobs they cannot fill because candidates don't have the skills they need. Many employers began opening offices in other hot tech markets in a quest to find people who had those badly needed skills. This approach is hardly desirable. It's expensive and time-consuming for local employers and frustrating for unemployed IT professionals and recent college grads struggling to find work here.

To further understand the root causes of this problem and what might be done, a coalition of regional economic development and workforce organizations commissioned the Tampa Bay IT Workforce Analysis. The report, published last fall, sought to understand the current and future hiring needs of IT-related companies here to ensure a steady pipeline of talent and continued economic growth. What the report uncovered was an array of problems that, if not addressed, threaten Tampa Bay's economic future.

Topping IT employers' wish lists were candidates who have at least 3-5 years of relevant work experience, bachelor's degrees and capabilities that go beyond the latest technical competencies to show an aptitude for continuous learning and multiple skill acquisition. These include critical thinking and communication skills as well as professional curiosity, which employers seem to find in short supply in the available talent pool.

College students were also polled about their knowledge of what skills employers want. Most did not know much about local companies, lacked current technical skills, and had very limited knowledge of technology career options. However, these same students expressed a strong interest in learning and practicing hot new skills like mobile application development, want to be challenged and are interested in discovering opportunities with area employers — particularly those who can give them quality internships.

So what can we do to align the mismatched needs of our high-tech employers with the existing skills of our workforce?

Plenty.

But it's going to take support from elected officials, commitment from business and academic leaders, perpetual learning on the part of our workforce, and the creation of skill-building programs that offer relevant solutions for IT employers' changing needs.

The Tampa Bay Technology Forum is coordinating these efforts and implementing recommendations set forth in the IT Workforce Analysis report under the "Grow Tampa Bay Tech" initiative. This initiative will focus on developing training programs for students, veterans and IT professionals who need updated skills; setting up exploratory labs in local colleges to give students hands-on experience with new technologies; working with employers and academic institutions to develop quality internship programs and technology-focused career fairs; and supporting efforts to market the region as an exciting center of high-tech entrepreneurship.

Our elected officials can help by funding programs that will strengthen our workforce's ability to obtain skills required to keep our high-tech economy thriving. Enterprise Florida's infamous new logo, featuring a necktie, symbolizes traditional business but hardly speaks to tech companies known for more casual cultures. They prefer their headquarter cities to have a cool factor that attracts creative young talent, one which cities like Austin, Texas, have successfully baked into their marketing. Right-sizing our incentive programs to lure more nimble, fast-growing tech companies would be beneficial as well.

Businesses can help by participating in internship programs and visiting classrooms to educate students about careers in technology. Universities can assist by offering double majors that cultivate the multiple skills most useful for high tech careers and creating certificate programs that allow students and professionals to get the latest training to keep their skills fresh.

We all have a part to play in fixing Tampa Bay's IT skills gap. The payoff for our region's economic future cannot be underestimated.

Heather Kenyon is CEO of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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