Nextech Gets Kids Interested in IT Careers Via Teacher Training

The challenge of finding skilled IT workers is a global one, but it’s arguably more acute in places like Indiana, where manufacturing brawn has historically trumped brainier sectors such as software development or biotech.

As Rust Belt states strive to diversify their economies in the wake of the country’s declining industrial sector, there is simply not enough homegrown talent to fill all of the state’s open technology jobs, says Karen Jung.

Jung runs a public nonprofit organization called Nextech that was formed in 2015 to address the problem. Nextech evolved, Jung explains, from ExactTarget’s charitable foundation; once that company was acquired by Salesforce (NASDAQ: CRM) a few years ago, there was an opportunity to do something a little different.

“We looked at the pipeline to see what was going on, and we found a huge gap in K-12,” Jung says. “There was not enough in the curriculum, like critical thinking and problem-solving skills, needed for success. With that observation, we relaunched as Nextech to inspire students and better connect them to technical training.” If Indiana’s goal is to have more students in tech, those students must first go on a mental journey, she says, before they can imagine themselves working in IT.

“They don’t even know what careers are out there,” she says. “The journey has to begin with the students knowing the opportunities. We need to equip students with baseline skills and then introduce them to in-demand skills.”

The last step involves allowing students to connect with local tech companies for one-on-one mentorship because, she says, they just don’t know that “real tech companies” are based right in their own backyard.

Nextech has taken a somewhat unusual path to get kids interested in a tech career: in addition to overseeing programs for students, it trains K-12 educators to teach computer science.

“We realized if we partner with school districts to train teachers, we can reach hundreds of students,” Jung says. “Our goal is to have a computer science curriculum in every Indiana classroom. If we hit that goal, we’ll work ourselves out of a job.”

Code.org provides the curriculum for Nextech, its surrogate in Indiana, and Nextech works to recruit schools and educators for a yearlong professional development program that trains them to teach computer science. So far, the partnership has trained 80 teachers from 43 districts, with another 90 teachers set to participate in the third cohort starting this fall.

Jung says that based on the feedback she’s heard, teachers love Nextech’s model. “It works because it’s cost-effective,” she adds. “When we’re talking about things like big data and the Internet of Things, what does that mean in the real world? We give teachers the content and context so they have the confidence to be successful.”

Nextech also just finished up its inaugural educator externship program, a five-day professional development course that immerses teachers in the local tech scene. Eighteen teachers from 17 districts participated in hands-on software development training; took tours of local companies like Bluelock, Doxly, and High Alpha; and held panel discussions about both traditional and non-traditional tech careers.

Jung says the teachers in the externship program had an average of 11 years teaching, but only one year of computer science training. “It gave them the opportunity to better understand the landscape of local companies, and what the various roles are within tech. All of them have heard real stories of why data matters or what the cloud means, and they walked out with specific lesson plans.”

Nextech hopes to grow the externship program next year without turning it into a “drive-by experience,” Jung says.

So far, she thinks Indiana is doing a good job of supporting and growing its tech companies, and she cites the state’s $1 billion commitment to investing in tech and the opening of the new Salesforce tower downtown as indicators that things are moving in the right direction.

“There’s a growing recognition in the IT industry that not all of these jobs require a four-year degree,” she says. “If we can transition them right from high school, that’s better for the individual, the industry, and the community. By 2025, there will be about 23,000 open tech jobs in Indiana. Those students are in eighth and ninth grade now, so if we don’t address it, it’s only going to get worse.”

However, Jung also says that tech industry buy-in—and funding—is key to the ultimate success of workforce initiatives.

“It comes down to the critical role industry has got to play in solving workforce issues,” she says. “We have to go further up the pipeline, and without industry at the table, we won’t succeed. Governments at the federal, state, and local level also have to recognize that demand for tech talent is only going to increase.”

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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