Michigan Startups Working to Bridge IT Talent Gap

4/4/14Follow @XconomyDET

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of full-time classroom and lab learning, one month of project-based learning, and a month of one-on-one coaching with a Detroit Labs developer.

Because the apprenticeship program is funded by Detroit Labs and a grant from Automation Alley, it’s free for participants. Once they’ve applied and been accepted to the program, apprentices are considered full-time “junior developers” for Detroit Labs. [An earlier version of this paragraph implied that apprentices do not receive paychecks, but they do. We regret the error.]

“The outcome we want is to grow the team with the right kind of folk,” Hughes says. “The interview screening process is as rigorous as for any Detroit Labs employee. The most important qualification is the ability to work as a team under pressure. We also look for skills programmers need, like logical thinking, problem solving, and practical math. [Applicants] have to have raw intelligence.”

Those who are interested in applying for the apprenticeship program should go to the Detroit Labs website for more information. Ten apprentices are being selected for each session. The overall goal of the program, Hughes says, is to provide clear opportunities for those who feel they might have more potential than their current employment situation. “We’re putting a significant amount of money in this,” he adds. “We’re doubling down on growing talent with people who have raw skills, and we expect it to pay off.” Hughes says more than 60 people applied for the spring apprenticeship session.

Jayashree Ravi is taking a slightly different tactic with the Troy, MI-based Mobi Boot Camp classes she started last fall, which are designed for both middle schoolers and adult professionals. Instead of using the “building blocks” approach that she says most IT training courses use, she favors a more interactive, hands-on style. “It’s like I’m teaching them the alphabet, and then the next step is for them to learn how to form sentences and paragraphs,” she says.

To get kids interested in her classes, she emphasizes that software skills can help them stand out during the college application process. Plus, they can take their mobile app development talents to local businesses and offer to write custom apps for a fee.

Ravi has been in the computer engineering industry for more than 20 years, and she says software development is her passion. While she was working on her master’s degree at Wayne State University a few years ago, she started working as a part-time instructor. Last fall she decided to make it a full time business with Mobi Boot Camp.

Ravi offers classes for adults in mobile app development, cloud services, and big data technology for a cost of $200 to $1,200 per class. She’s also licensed by the state to retrain unemployed workers, some of whom are eligible for free classes through Michigan Works, the state’s employment agency. Some of Mobi Boot Camp’s classes are also entirely online, which means anybody with a computer can take the courses.

“After my class, you should have the skills you need to create a mobile app,” she adds. “It’s not rocket science. Even if you have no skills, if you remember basic high school algebra, I can help you become a software developer.” (To enroll, visit the Mobi Boot Camp website.) So far, Ravi has signed up more than 20 students since the startup’s October launch.

The prospects for these new ventures are good, given the shortage of tech talent. But why are there more jobs than workers? The answer seems to be a combination of history and recent tech growth.

For almost a century, our state’s economy was built on manufacturing jobs that didn’t require a college education. Those jobs are, of course, mostly gone and not coming back. Despite that fact, rates of college graduation are still low. According to a 2010 report from the Lumina Foundation for Education, about 35.6 percent of Michigan residents ages 25 to 64 had at least a two-year degree in 2008, which is below the national average of 37.9 percent.

That didn’t matter when the tech economy was small. As recently as a few years ago, Michigan actually had a surplus of IT workers, according to Economic Modeling Specialists International, a labor market data company. But now, thanks to the growth of Detroit-based companies like Quicken Loans and the “Big Three” automakers, along with a bevy of software startups, that surplus has turned into a significant shortage. And that bodes well not only for the region’s economy, but also for the success of the new training initiatives.

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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