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VOL. 8 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 9, 2015

Want a Great-Paying Job? Here’s the Deal

Tech companies are ‘snatching up’ grads of Tennessee computer-training programs


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Want a new career with nearly unlimited upside potential? One that will have employers beating down your door?

Ereny Younan and Rena Johnson compare notes on the last day of their computer information technology class at Nashville State Community College.

(The Ledger/Lyle Graves)

Uncle Sam wants you – to join the technology workforce.

Nationwide, skilled tech workers are in short supply, with more than half a million jobs going unfilled. And in Tennessee, where the rapidly expanding economy has companies competing for every qualified worker, the state is going to great lengths to train people in sought-after tech skills – footing the entire bill, in some cases, for adults willing to retool their careers.

Substantial financial aid is available for a range of tech-education options – from boot camp-style coding schools that mint software developers in as little as three months to programs at the state’s technical and community colleges, where graduates are in constant demand.


“The hiring part has been hard,” says JJ Rosen, founder and chairman of tech consulting firm Atiba, who says developers, programmers, network engineers and information technology specialists are difficult to find.

“In Nashville, it’s been one of the main challenges – the supply and demand. Everyone is trying to figure it out.”

With the help of big investments in expanding tech training by the state, federal government and private companies, there are more opportunities than ever.

Now those programs need students.

‘Such high demand’

This fall, the $100 million federal TechHire initiative will launch in Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and 18 other cities. TechHire will fund universities, community colleges, regional code schools and boot camp-style programs to bolster the nation’s technology workforce in careers like software development, online security, data analysis and network administration.

In December, the Nashville Technology Council and Nashville State Community College were awarded $850,000 through the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) to help align training at the college with the skills businesses need.

And Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, a push to get college diplomas or certificates in the hands of 55 percent of Tennesseans, includes college scholarships through Tennessee Promise and TN Reconnect grants that pay the full tuition for adults attending the Tennessee College of Applied Technology.


Those programs should result in increased enrollment this fall, says Reginald Gardner, dean of computer and engineering technologies at Nashville State.

“Gov. Haslam’s programs have been instrumental for getting more students into technology programs,” he explains. “We are very pleased with the support from the administration.”

More than 21,000 people are employed in IT in the Nashville Metropolitan area, and their ranks are growing faster than the nation as a whole, according to the Nashville Technology Council, which is coordinating TechHire and other efforts to increase the tech workforce locally, including recruiting underrepresented populations like minorities, veterans and women.

The top five occupations within the field locally are:

  • Computer systems analysts
  • Computer user support specialists
  • Software developers
  • Network and computer systems administrators
  • Computer and information systems managers

Median earnings in 2013 were $30.43 an hour, or more than $63,000 a year.

In Middle Tennessee, there were more than 1,300 openings in tech fields last year, up sharply from 872 in 2013. Last month, Forbes ranked Nashville No. 8 in the country in tech industry job growth, with a 68.6 percent increase in jobs between 2004 and 2014.

“There is such high demand in this area,” says Scott Seipel, associate professor of computer information systems at Middle Tennessee State University.

“The market is so unstable they don’t know where to look for the people with these skills. Companies that do are snatching them up.”

Hiring without an opening

Atiba, which offers businesses a wide range of tech services, including network and IT support, project management, web site design and custom software and mobile application development, is constantly recruiting, Rosen says, and will hire someone with skills and the right attitude even if he doesn’t have a specific opening.

Nashville was chosen as a TechHire site because of a documented need from businesses and corporations in the area, Gardner adds.

“There are current unfilled positions in the technology sector, as well as identified future needs to fill the pipeline with qualified computer technology expertise,” he says.

Employers say the most desired skills are application development, systems analysis, Unix/Linux, data storage and computer networking, Gardner adds.

“We’ve got a lot of new people going into IT, but we’ve also got a lot of job growth,” says Paul Haynes, executive director of the Middle Tennessee Workforce Investment Board.

“Technology is pervasive throughout the system. Large manufacturing companies, health care, anything you can think of where goods and services are going back and forth – there’s an IT component to it.”

Startups skip town?

Wired cities like Chattanooga, where residents enjoy the fastest Internet service in the country, and Nashville, which will one day have Google Fiber ultra high-speed Internet, will attract companies seeking to exploit broadband’s capabilities. But without the right workforce, they may not stay.


“When you have a burgeoning startup community, that becomes particularly felt,” says Lindsey Frost, community catalyst with Hive Chattanooga and the Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund.

“A city risks becoming an incubator for startups. They can grow to a point, but then they have to move in order to find the talent they need.”

It’s not just a problem for startups.

Middle Tennessee’s tech talent shortfall is especially acute.

That shortage is felt in Nashville’s signature industry, with health care gobbling up computer information technology and systems graduates as fast as area schools can produce them. Banking, publishing and manufacturing companies also are competing for that talent.

In response to the need for programmers/software developers, coding boot camps are springing up nationwide.

In June, The Iron Yard will open its newest coding school in Nashville’s SoBro district. In 12 intensive weeks, the company promises, graduates with a strong motivation to learn and an aptitude for technical work will qualify for a job as a junior-level programmer with a starting salary that averages more than $50,000.

A similar program is offered by Nashville Software School, which has a six-month program costing $10,500 that can be offset by apprenticeship and job placement programs. Both schools offer scholarships and financing.

“They give people an option to get into a field where there’s high demand and it’s pretty high-paying,” says Rosen, who said he has been impressed with the graduates of Nashville Software School.

“They make learning possible where maybe a four-year college isn’t possible, economically. You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school or expensive university to get into this and make a good living.”

Middle Tennessee is home to several schools that teach similar programs. The Nashville Technology Council has suggestions for consumers from high school to adult students at www.technologycouncil.com.

It’s not just writing code

At the region’s traditional four-year universities, interest in computer technology and information systems is up.


While enrollment at MTSU as a whole is down, enrollment in the computer information systems department is has increased 9 percent and is nearly back to pre-recession levels, says Charles Apigian, who heads the CIS department at MTSU.

Entry-level salaries for MTSU graduates start at around $40,000 and average around $50,000 to $60,000, depending on the discipline.

“When there’s jobs, when there’s relevance, when students see that coming here and getting a CIS degree they’re going to get a job, that accounts for that growth,” Apigian adds.

“This degree is not going to be outmoded in a few years. Data is big and only getting bigger.”

MTSU offers three technology-related majors: computer technology, which includes hardware and engineering; computer science, which trains developers and programmers; and computer information systems, which merges business with technology to teach students how to collect, store, secure, process, analyze and interpret information.

Because technology encompasses a wide range of careers relevant to many types of businesses, from banking to health care to hospitality to government agencies, students learn a broad range of business skills to prepare them for success in any professional setting, according to Apigian.

Masters programs offer concentrations in information security and assurance, IT project management and, soon, business intelligence and analytics, which will teach hot topics like data mining and predictive analytics.

Data analysts are in demand by companies such as HCA. Hospitals use patient health and claims data for many purposes, including quality improvement, care coordination and population health management, upon which insurance companies and government health programs now base their hospital reimbursement rates.

HCA and other employers, including law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, work with MTSU to help develop its curriculum based on real-world needs, such as analyzing crime statistics.

CIS students train on top analytics tools from companies like MicroStrategy, Microsoft and Tableau so they can hit the ground running on any platform.

“There’s all these jobs out there and everybody thinks they’re programming jobs. That’s a real misconception,” says Apigian.

“You could be in our field and never write a single line of code in your career and do very well.”

Salaries grow and grow

Still, software developers – people with coding and programming skills that create websites, games, mobile apps and business systems – are the most sought-after. And it’s relatively easy to get those skills for those who are motivated.

The Iron Yard was originally founded in Greenville, South Carolina, to create a pipeline of tech talent for start-up businesses coming out of a business accelerator program.

Its founders recognized the need to train more adults in coding and now operates campuses in 14 cities, teaching classes in the most popular software engineering languages and frameworks, including Python and Ruby on Rails, as well as user interface design.

“It’s the right time for the company and for Nashville,” Iron Yard cofounder Eric Dodds explains.

“Learning to code is great to understand the world of software, which is part of so many different businesses now.

“Should everyone have a job as a programmer? No. But we want to give as many people who want to learn to code the opportunity to.

“Learning to code is a very valuable skill, even if it only helps you develop mental muscle in that way of thinking,” he adds.

Graduates can make $50,000 to $60,000 as a junior-level software developer, Dodds adds, but he doesn’t like to focus on starting salaries.

“That pales in comparison to the type of income potential that you’ll have several years down the road as you mature,” adds Dodds, noting that the schools train plenty of older learners who have been displaced or hit a ceiling in their former careers.

“What’s even more exciting is you’re going to make 50 percent more than that several years down the road if you keep learning and growing. For a majority of people it opens up a new level of possibility for compensation.”

Apigian, too, says that older students are not a rarity and that in the tech world, skilled employees are in such demand that talent trumps any gender and age barriers.

One of his students, now in his mid-40s, got a bachelor’s degree in ministry and had a career in landscaping before discovering the CIS program while chatting with Apigian at a soccer game. He will graduate this month with a master’s degree and is pursuing a job at a major health care company.

Asked whether he has a natural aptitude for technology, Apigian replied the student has an aptitude for working hard.

“He struggled because he did not have the background, but he loves this stuff,” he says.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there for people who don’t even realize it. All you have to do is be willing to work hard and have a little bit of passion for technology.”

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