By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – As the digital economy grows, the need for people who are skilled in writing code, managing networks and protecting against cyber-attacks has become akin to feeding a large, insatiable baby. The more it’s fed, the bigger the appetite.
Companies of all types require information technology talent, especially in an age when automation, artificial intelligence and the “Internet of Things” are changing how the world does business.
That challenge is reflected in the transition of the state’s advanced manufacturing sector; the continued rise of its financial services sector; and the evolution of agriculture, three staples of the Wisconsin economy for generations.
It’s also evident in the rise of companies that are tech-based, either in information technology or the life sciences, that have added to Wisconsin’s economic fabric.
With experts predicting there will soon be eight information technology jobs for every qualified applicant, how does the process of training people – the workforce “supply” – keep pace with the demands of industry and virtually every other sector?
Some answers can be found in traditional higher education. For example, the Department of Computer Sciences at the UW-Madison is on a path to grow the size of its faculty, bring related disciplines closer together and to eventually become a full-fledged school that will house expanded instruction and research in computing and data science.
National organizations such as Code.org and TEALS, which stands for Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, are helping high schools and middle schools build computer science programs – often by working with teachers who previously considered themselves far better-versed in other subjects.
Another road is being followed through the UW-Milwaukee, which has become the first college or university in Wisconsin to work with a private career accelerator – Thinkful – through a unique short-course approach that comes with a hiring guarantee.
Six years old and based in New York City, Thinkful has graduated more than 10,000 people from five concentrated courses over time. Thinkful doesn’t offer degrees. It helps people get jobs somewhere in the fields of computing, data science or engineering or it refunds the money students pay for tuition.
So far in 2018, Thinkful has refunded tuition payments to less than 3 percent of the graduates eligible for its job guarantee – which means about 97 percent found jobs within six months.
At UW-Milwaukee, through the School of Continuing Education, people who sign up for one of Thinkful’s nine-month, mentored online courses will also receive a university certificate attesting to their skills. It will become one of UW-Milwaukee’s 490 professional development courses and aims to serve different types of students than those enrolled in the four-year Computer Science sequence.
“Boot-camp style short courses reach a different population than our traditional comp-sci programs,” said Nancy Nelson, who is deputy to the campus provost for continuing education. She expects students who will enroll in a Thinkful short-course will be far more likely to be women, minorities, older and already holding a bachelor’s degree in another field.
The first Thinkful cohort will launch its training in mid-January, Nelson said, and others will follow in each month after that.
“As we considered this option, what we liked most about Thinkful’s approach was the one-on-one mentoring and their overall connections with each student,” she said.
It’s tempting to think of short-course schools as having a fly-by-night approach, but Thinkful is a member of the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, which monitors such schools to ensure they perform as advertised. Thinkful has 140 full-time employees and 300 mentors in offices across the United States.
It also has a leading Wisconsin financial backer, the Milwaukee-based Golden Angels Investors. One of Wisconsin’s largest angel networks, the Golden Angels invested in Thinkful through a partnership with Owl Ventures in San Francisco, Calif.
(“Thinkful’s) best-in-class guarantee to students, coupled with exceedingly high employer satisfaction, positions them for significant success,” said Tim Keane, director of the Golden Angels. “Online education is a rapidly expanding category.”
Feeding the giant baby of workforce demands in computer science will require many approaches to education and training. There will be room for quality programs of all types, in Wisconsin and beyond.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.