Despite the noticeable strengths of Lansing’s economy, a number of employers struggle with a shortage of qualified I-T workers. Increasingly, information technology jobs go unfilled for weeks and months. Employers and job-seekers alike are hoping a new, multi-million dollar skills initiative—E-Pathways--will help close the gap.
Late last year, the Capital Area I-T Council landed a $4.4 million federal grant to launch E-Pathways. For the next four years, its goal is to turn out more software programmers, developers and database administrators. I-T Council Executive Director Andrea Ragan says it’s a hot field.
“In the Capital Area, unemployment hovers around eight percent right now, but in the I-T industry specifically, it’s around one or two percent,” she says. So I-T employees are in very high demand.”
E-Pathways offers to pay for schooling for displaced or dislocated workers who have some qualifications for the field. It could be their work history, previous schooling or aptitude.
One participant helping steer the initiative is encouraged. Arjay Patrick oversees an I-T staff of more than 50 at the Michigan Education Special Services Association—MESSA--in East Lansing. The health plan provider wants to accommodate a growing number of policy holders who want to do business online.
“Being able to securely get that information out there for them is a challenge and that’s really, right now, one of our biggest needs is finding people like that who can understand it and make that happen for us,” he explains.
MESSA’s currently looking for I-T people and expects more openings this summer. Patrick says that a couple of times in recent years, the company’s been strapped.
“We would have openings go unfilled for a year,” he says.
Patrick estimates current I-T and related job openings in the Lansing area number into the hundreds. The Sparrow Health System alone has filled dozens of I-T positions in the past year. A spokesman says ten openings are currently posted are others will follow.
Clarke Anderson is the CEO at East Lansing-based I-T services company A.J. Boggs. He's also the president-elect of the Capital Area I-T Council.
“There’s no longer the debate ‘Do we need I-T? Is this going to help?’,” he says. “It’s when and how much?”
Anderson says over 200 companies in the region now have I-T professionals on staff.
“There are companies that are doing everything from dashboard systems to mobile computing to electronic medical record systems,” he explains. “And I think it reflects the whole economy, that all of us are becoming I-T professionals. I mean, we need it to do our daily business everywhere.”
Lansing Community College began placing the first E-Pathways students into computer courses just last month. All are aiming for a four year computer science degree. Should they fall short, they might still complete associates degrees or skills certifications.
As promising as it sounds, planners remind applicants of what might seem obvious--that if this were easy work, there wouldn’t be so many openings. Again, MESSA’s Arjay Patrick.
“Those who may not have a real diehard interest in it but, you know, ‘Ok, train me and I’ll go do it’….Those are going to be tough to get through because these are not easy classes,” he says. “A lot of these guys put in a ton of hours.”
Classes are available to help people get their math up to speed, but organizers say applicants should have taken algebra in high school.
So far, the demands don’t deter Doug Wood. The Holt resident holds a few basic computer programming certifications and has some training in computer network security. He thinks those and his enthusiasm got him admitted to the program.
“This is my destiny,” he maintains. “I have a passion for it. I like electronics and stuff, and computers. It’s not only just for me, it’s for my whole family.”
Workforce professionals say Lansing’s economic vitality is tied to its capacity to turn out or attract more qualified I-T workers. Alongside manufacturing, insurance, state government and MSU, they say I-T will be an inevitable feature of a healthy economy into the 21st century.