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As Tampa Bay tech firms scramble for talent, boot camp aims to boost supply

Angela Beltz, vice president of Cisco solutions group at Clearwater's Tech Data Corp. Photos courtesy of Tech Data Corp.
Published Jan. 23, 2015

At one of Tampa Bay's largest technology companies, 116 Tech Data Corp. employees report to marketing vice president Angie Beltz. But only seven of them hold technology degrees.

Beltz rattles off the history, marketing, communications and psychology degrees that many of her workers possess. It makes for a striking message. There are lots of promising career opportunities in "technology" firms that, unbeknownst to many entering the workforce, do not require engineering or formal technical educations.

"I hire people for their drive," says Beltz, who holds a fashion marketing degree. Training and experience at Tech Data do the rest.

Because so few students with nontech degrees consider technology industries a viable place to find jobs, they miss the chance to pursue work at higher-growth tech businesses that can often come with richer paychecks. In turn, scores of area companies like Clearwater giant Tech Data lose out because the talent pool of its potential workforce is more limited than it should be.

Here's a new attempt to fix that.

A compelling consortium of Tampa Bay companies, schools and tech groups will soon launch the Exploratory Lab Boot Camp. It's a 70-hour program, free to participating students, that kicks off next month at St. Petersburg College. It will give 25 selected college juniors and seniors pursuing non-tech or tech degrees real-life exposure to technology skills. The boot camp will be taught by employees from Tech Data and Valpak to customer software firm AgileThought, among other tech firms. The alliance includes expertise supplied by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum (TBTF) and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Selected students from three participating schools — St. Petersburg College, USFSP and University of Tampa — will focus during the first 30 hours on developing and presenting a business plan. A 40-hour boot camp follows, March 23-27, with all-day sessions taught by industry professionals on topics that range from integrated business and technology solutions to cybersecurity, tools to create the user experience and networking.

Sound foreign? It won't after the boot camp immersion.

"Without exposure, students have no idea if they have the talent" to excel in the tech industry, says USFSP information systems professor Allison Watkins, who is part of the boot camp team.

If all goes as planned, the bulk of students who complete the camp will be offered jobs or internships at Tech Data or other area firms.

And if the first boot camp is deemed a success, look for the program to expand here, and possibly spread to other parts of the state, if not the country, says Jim Connolly, SPC's director of corporate training.

"The next 40 years of success at Tech Data are tied to our ability to find top talent that is hungry, humble and smart," says Tech Data president of the Americas Joe Quaglia. He calls the boot camp plan an innovative start to growing the talent pool. "We are just scratching the surface."

The goal is not to create more techies on short notice. But it should give boot camp students inroads into area companies and an overall leg up on the job market, without increasing their credit hours, by bridging some of the gap between what a typical college graduate knows and what a business really needs them to know, says Patricia Gehant, head of TBTF's workforce initiative.

Ultimately, Gehant and the broader economic development community here hope this will lead to more young and talented people staying in Tampa Bay to build their careers.

Gehant, Connolly, Beltz and other area business executives presented their boot camp plan to an enthusiastic SPC president Bill Law and the college's board of trustees this past Tuesday. "Getting real-time feedback from students, employers and partners will allow us to keep our courses current, focused and highly relevant to the challenges of a global economy," Law stated.

The partnership and boot camp are a creative solution to issues raised in a 2012 IT skills gap analysis of 70 area companies that showed Tampa Bay area technology businesses face a critical shortage of qualified personnel to fill open jobs.

"Companies hire for skills and character, not necessarily degrees," said Gehant, herself a former IT director despite a master's degree in social science education. "It's about the art of managing technology in the real world."

This boot camp idea is smart and benefits from the tech industry's direct involvement. Too many past workforce training programs have relied on schools to divine a curriculum that often does not deliver what companies claim they really need in a fast-changing industry.

Tech Data's decision to involve itself directly, supplying employees as teachers and offering jobs or internships upon completion, is a major leap in credibility that, done right, should attract even more participation by area tech firms as teachers and employers in the future.

The region could be on to something good here.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

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