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November 21, 2012

Tons of tech jobs and not enough takers

By Camille Izlar, Northwestern University Medill School, November 20, 2012 (reprinted with permission)

Millions of Americans are unemployed and businesses are looking to cut costs by letting people go. But in this tough economic climate, there is one industry starving for talent and fresh workers: web and technology development. Brandon Passley, founder and owner of Vokal, a Chicago application engineering company, is one of the many entrepreneurs and managers struggling to fill positions in his field.

“It’s my job to hire these people and they’re just not out there,” said Passley.

The lack of a talent pool begins with confusion about the “tech” classification: many people don’t know what these jobs entail, much less how to obtain one. According to the Illinois Technology Association, the industry includes “growth-stage companies in software and software services, mobile, internet, IT consulting, gaming, online services, electronics and telecommunications.” This wide-reaching definition covers entire categories within the industry, each of which holds many job possibilities.

In September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke about these opportunities to computer science majors at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, urging them to consider Chicago for their careers. Other non-profit and educational organizations such as Built In Chicago, Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, and 1871 also are trying to foster tech growth. However, Judi Wunderlich, co-founder/vice president of web and mobile recruiting company WunderLand Group, and who runs the 1,800 member Chicago Interactive Design & Development Meetup, says government and businesses can’t only rely on universities to supply the training needed.

“Unfortunately, colleges are not teaching real world skills,” said Wunderlich.

Passley personally experienced this gap in his career: “When I was thinking about where to go to school, most colleges didn’t have a web development program. I just continued to teach myself.”

Some schools such as DePaul’s Institute for Professional Development, have since created acclaimed programs. But these are often graduate-level programs, which are very expensive and take two years to complete. Tom Huguelet, a business information training specialist, says even these programs can’t keep up because the industry is always changing. “Academia is always about five years behind the computer industry,” said Huguelet.

Some people think the problem extends further back. “They teach English and German in high school, why not programming languages?” wonders Passley. This would then increase the likelihood of students demanding additional education at the collegiate level. Currently, the Urbana-Champaign campus has 945 students majoring in computer science out of 31,942 undergraduates total. This increase from previous years still won’t answer the demand for designers and developers, tech experts say.

IT certificate programs are one inexpensive solution to bridge the gap in higher education. People who don’t have an undergraduate degree in an IT field can take certification courses from hardware manufacturers and get the skills they need to change careers.

Huguelet, who offers private training classes for corporate clients, said these specialty certificates tend to be superficial because they are offered by product vendors. “I stopped offering the Microsoft curriculum because the quality of the classroom experience was so poor. It wasn’t helping anybody.”

The bottom line is training is necessary to keep on top of the evolving technological sphere but unless someone has a job and a company paying for it, it may not be economically feasible, said Huguelet.

Some companies are sponsoring more in-depth training programs, especially in the online development sector. Brandon Passley, seeing the lack of talent in mobile apps, has developed Mobile Makers Academy with IOS and Android experts. The academy aims to train people in 10 weeks to develop mobile applications.

“Our goal is to take someone who wasn’t a programmer at all and give them the right tools and techniques to get a job,” said Passley. He said two students, formerly accountants, are already building apps from scratch. Mobile Makers Academy focuses specifically on mobile application development because of the fast growing demand. Passley works with his colleagues to make sure the students get the skills they need to get jobs right after they complete the program.

WunderLand Group, JobSpring and other recruiters are expecting new talent from these programs. But Wunderlich is worried that corporations won’t look favorably on the new developers because of their lack of work experience. “Unfortunately companies are still being stubborn, they want someone who has already been employed.”

That results in corporations and web-development companies recycling the same people, wooing them with larger salaries and bigger perks, according to Wunderlich.

According to a 2009 survey by the Illinois Technology Association, the median salary for software engineering was $75,700. Recently Jason Fried, the founder of Chicago software company 37 Signals, posted a job offer on his blog for an “IOS prototyper” at $100,000 a year.

Wunderlich proposes apprenticeships as one viable solution. “Companies need to take people on, agree to pay them a living wage so they can quit their former job and get real work experience,” she said.

Wunderlich specifically sees a lot of graphic designers who can’t find work. “They have been laid off in droves over the past couple years and can’t transition into digital design because no one wants to give them a chance,” said Wunderlich . The same companies that fired their graphics staff are having trouble finding digital replacements.

“The answer isn’t to send our jobs overseas, that’s shortsighted,” Wunderlich said. “Unfortunately when corporations are focused on the bottom line and want to see profit, they don’t look at the big picture. “

Vokal, Passley’s company, offers apprenticeships to those that are a little further along in programming experience. Huguelet agrees that this trend is encouraging. “I think there is an increased move toward mentoring because it is a midpoint between training and consulting.”

Ultimately Wunderlich thinks there has to be a compromise on the part of corporations and government to grow talent. Passley said Chicago’s growing tech environment will help develop more educational offerings and encourage people to pursue the tech field.

“Community,” says Passley, “is one of the things missing in the mobile space.”

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