Michigan Startups Working to Bridge IT Talent Gap

[Corrected 4/4/14, 6:01 p.m. See below.] Detroit’s shortage of information technology talent is not a new problem, but it does seem to be getting more pronounced as the number of tech startups taking root in Michigan grows. In 2012, Dice.com designated Detroit as the fifth-fastest growing tech city in the nation. And in 2013, Michigan’s high-tech job growth rate of 6.9 percent was the third highest in the nation, fueled in part by the rebounding auto industry. That’s led to a lot of unfilled positions. In Southeast Michigan, there are more than 1,000 tech jobs on any given day listed on Dice.com; today there are 1,245 tech jobs listed within a 40-mile radius of Detroit.

This shortage, however, has spawned another kind of innovation. Startups are springing up to try to fill the skills and talent gap by offering tech training programs.

Last year, for example, Ann Arbor, MI-based software guru Bill Wagner sold his software development firm, SRT Solutions, to Atomic Object. He was trying to figure out what do to next when he hit upon the idea of IT training courses. “I spent the bulk of my time at SRT helping new hires go from being new employees to seasoned computer engineers,” he says. “I looked at some of the materials I’ve done in the past and used that to put a training curriculum together.”

It helped that Wagner has written two best-selling books about the programming language C#, which he uses in teaching in his classes. He’s also planning to focus on ASP.NET, Visual Studio, LINQ, and lean development practices.

Wagner pitches his courses not to prospective students, but rather directly to companies in any industry that employs software developers. He plans to personally teach the training courses at his clients’ offices so work days are disrupted as little as possible. Wagner says he charges businesses $1,500 per developer and will customize course materials for companies that have large teams requiring multiple sessions.

“They say it’s difficult to find talent around here, but too many managers think it’s a zero sum game—that they have to win the battle for talent,” Wagner says. “Instead, I want them to grow the talent they already have. Too many employers want to hire senior-level developers. Instead, hire these talented young people and train them. That benefits the whole region.”

Detroit Labs is another company seeking to boost IT skills and talents in the metro Detroit region. At the end of March, the app developer launched an apprenticeship program that teaches people how to build apps, regardless of their experience level. “We’re looking at two groups: new graduates from high school or with an associate’s degree, and those looking to make a career change,” says Nathan Hughes, co-founder of Detroit Labs.

Hughes says the goal is to turn apprentices into full-time app developers with a three-month training program. The program will run each spring and fall. The spring session, underway now with ten students, focuses on iOS app development. The fall session will focus on Android mobile development. The curriculum includes one month 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 Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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