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'Tech Trek' bus tour seeks to match students, market needs

Published Apr. 17, 2013

Paul Smith is on track to graduate this year with an information studies degree from the University of South Florida. No wonder he gazes so lovingly at the endless rows of servers that drive the vast operations at Tampa International Airport and HSN. Here are organizations with major technology needs that might some day need his expertise.

Smith is one of a couple of dozen college students pursuing degrees ranging from information systems and IT security to network administration who spent Monday on a "Tech Trek" bus tour of prominent area companies. The students' mission: To envision their own career opportunities if they stay and work in Tampa Bay.

Joining Smith is Daniel Rodriguez, who is broadening his USF finance degree with Microsoft certification training at St. Petersburg College. Also aboard is Sarah Zaki, a University of Tampa freshman pursuing both a management information systems and an accounting major.

"If I can't find MIS work," Zaki reasons, "at least I know that people have to do their taxes."

The bus tour was the brainstorm of the tech advocacy group Tampa Bay Technology Forum. It's a small piece of a larger strategy by area economic development groups to raise the awareness level of area companies with tech jobs they say are hard to fill, and regional colleges and universities whose students often remain disturbingly unaware of the growing technology economy here.

To ease that disconnect, a new network of student TBTF chapters is sprouting up at area universities to facilitate internships and job opportunities at area companies.

Another way TBTF wants to bridge the gulf between business and student is a plan to create an "Exploratory Lab." The lab will allow technology students to practice solving real-world, challenging business case studies and gain more tangible tech skills that after graduation help them secure IT positions in the workforce.

Aboard the Tech Trek bus, TBTF staffer Pat Gehant offers her captive student audience a key piece of advice, one I've heard from tech executives time and again.

A tech degree may be a critical achievement, but many companies want job candidates to display one trait over all others: inquisitiveness. Gehant cites one company's standard: If a candidate in an interview does not ask at least three questions, they are not even considered for a job.

One stop at St. Petersburg's HSN captures how fast-changing technology — from mobile applications and social media to digital commerce, robo-controlled TV cameras and the telecommunications demands of call centers — increasingly underpins HSN's "omni-channel" strategy of selling goods to consumers.

Jeff Beck, the company's senior recruiting partner, emphasizes how HSN's 250-person tech staff collaborates constantly with other departments to keep the company cutting edge.

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The Tech Trek's last stop of the day is Lockheed Martin, whose St. Petersburg facility makes canopies and wings for F-16 and F-35 fighter jets for foreign governments. While the tour showcases cool, old-school manufacturing, opportunities for this bus crew are few. The company seeks engineers more than technology workers.

Working on his MIS degree, USF St. Petersburg student and bus tour member Daniel Nicholson gives the Tech Trek a thumbs up. He's already networking to win introductions with area companies that need help with databases, his specialty. An older student, Nicholson says he's eager to find work locally so he would not have to uproot his family.

Johnny McCormick, a Pensacola native who graduates from USF in May with an information studies degree, says he will be looking for Java programming and other software opportunities — preferably in Tampa Bay.

The bus tour offers at least a hint of the many sophisticated, but not always obvious, businesses with technology needs that pepper the Tampa Bay region. That's why TBTF expects more Tech Treks starting next fall to expose more students to other area companies with technology needs.

At its core, the bus tour is a great reminder to both businesses and students that there is more regional talent and opportunity here than meets the casual eye.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

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