Business, Government Coalition Helps Expand Missouri's IT Work Force

Business, Government Coalition Helps Expand Missouri's IT Work Force

Dave McCurley

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

Four years ago, it was open season on information technology workers in Missouri. Employers desperate to fill IT spots thought nothing of poaching workers from neighboring businesses and government agencies.

But when the competition became too fierce, a group of employers organized to discuss ways to expand the local work force.

"We realized we were basically stealing from one another out of the same pot. We finally got together and said, 'You know, we've got to cut this out,' " said Jan Grecian, deputy chief information officer for the Missouri Office of Information Technology.

The constant trading of employees among the business and government organizations "was kind of a shell game," said David Meyer, vice president of economic development and work force issues at the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce.

From this initial meeting, the Jefferson City Information Technology Council was born in the summer of 1996. Its members include the state of Missouri, Andersen Consulting, Verizon Data Services Inc., IBM Corp., Central Bank, Sprint Corp., the chamber of commerce and area institutions of higher education.

The success of this private-public partnership in expanding the regional pool of IT talent has earned praise from the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Information Resource Executives. NASIRE, an association of state chief information officers, gave Missouri its annual recognition award in the category of IT personnel recruitment and retention.

The association annually distributes awards for outstanding achievement in information technology to programs and systems that enable cost-effective, innovative solutions in state government operations.

One winner was chosen in each of nine categories from 87 submissions by 23 states. Categories included digital government, service applications and accessibility. Awards will be presented Sept. 26 at the NASIRE annual conference in Baltimore.

All coalition members share in the award, Grecian said. "This award isn't just about state government," she said. "It's about industry, education and government working toward a common goal, setting aside the turf issues we may have."

"Once [employers] started working together, they saw that [stealing employees] was not really the issue," Meyer said. "They saw they had to work on the supply side."

The coalition's four-year effort has expanded the technology work force in the state capital area, participants said. It also is increasing enrollments in local colleges' IT programs, priming the work force pipeline for years to come.

"There are more candidates available," said Dave McCurley, director of Andersen Consulting's state government practice. "It's still tough. It will take five to six years to get a real flood through the pipeline."

Evie Altheuser, a former clerical worker in state government, is one of the new IT workers.

A transfer to the Office of Administration's Division of Information Services convinced Altheuser "that computers were definitely my thing," she said.

While working full time, Altheuser finished a bachelor's degree in computer information management at William Woods University, a private school in Fulton, Mo. She completed the program, which was created with the help of the coalition, in less than two years. Now she's a computer information technologist at the State Data Center in Jefferson City, helping state agencies install and support Lotus Notes.

"The state, along with its coalition, is working very hard to not only assist staff that are interested in pursuing an IT degree," Altheuser said, "but also it's a win-win situation for state government and the community in fulfilling those needs."

To find potential employees such as Altheuser, coalition members first studied the local work force, noting who stayed and who left. They found that mid-Missouri natives were most likely to return or stay in the area. So instead of concentrating recruitment at regional and national universities, coalition members decided to focus on local residents and local colleges.

That meant educating students about career opportunities, promoting job opportunities to the current work force and adjusting colleges' offerings to reflect current work place needs.

"Many [students] are unaware that the [IT job] path exists, and those who do think of it as a real geeky, nerdy type of field to work in. We've seen that even in our discussions with adults. It's interesting for them to find out other things," said Paul Wright, co-chairman of the coalition and manager of information technology at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Members of the coalition speaker's bureau visit area schools at all grade levels. The coalition funds advertisements touting the career advancement and earning potential that IT jobs can provide. It also sponsors the Business Information Technology Institute, a one-week summer camp at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, where 30 high school students a year explore hands-on IT work.

At least five BIT participants have made IT their major course of college study, and others are adding IT courses to their work load, Wright said.
Later, students can get full-time or part-time state internships, where they
get hands-on IT experience and agencies get the chance to recruit them, Grecian said.

IT employers also help college officials revamp their courses to reflect technologies employers want now.

Before, McCurley said, colleges "were doing a lot of work in technologies that weren't relevant anymore. Now we're getting graduates that are better-equipped for today's IT job market."

Modene Murphy, chairwoman of the computer information systems department at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., said the school relies heavily on information it gets from employers when developing new courses and degree programs. The college added a networking degree because of the coalition's input, and is now considering adding a Web development degree.

Because workers trained through re-vamped IT programs are just now getting jobs, "it's really difficult to know whom you've influenced," said Grecian, former co-chairperson of the coalition.

The coalition is developing methods to measure its effects on the work force, said McCurley, co-chairman of the coalition.

"We're going to see the real fruits of our labors. We want to make sure we know who employs [retrained workers], the kind of salary they're getting," he said.

In the meantime, Grecian sees success in the enrollment growth at local colleges.

In the last four years, the private Columbia College of Missouri has more than doubled the number of students majoring in computer information systems at its Jefferson City campus and the number of CIS courses offered there. State Fair, a public institution about 60 miles outside the capital, has quadrupled the number of students in its CIS/programming major in the same period.

"A lot of the reason that our enrollment has grown is that members of the coalition began offering jobs to our students," Murphy said. "Once they began receiving high-paying jobs, enrollment increased."

New graduates of State Fair's two-year IT programs earn between $25,000 and $47,000 a year, Murphy said. One couple increased their annual family income from $15,000 to $94,000, she said.

State Fair also opened a campus in Jefferson City to meet the new demand for IT training. The number of students jumped from 40 to 350 in 15 months, forcing relocation.

"It's just amazing," said site coordinator Laura Coleman. Forty percent of students are in IT programs.

Another measure of the coalition's success, McCurley said, is that Jefferson City employers are no longer stealing workers from each other, even though competition for workers is still intense.

Now, he said, "it's time for employers to make sure we're living up to our end of the bargain. We told education institutions, 'If you train these people, you'll make them more employable, and we'll hire them.' We need to make sure we're doing that."

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