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Lansing I.T. Training Initiative Seeks Students With The ‘Right Stuff’

Mark Bashore

Lansing area workforce developers say a multi-million dollar federally-funded initiative could train up to 350 homegrown computer professionals. Capital Area Michigan Works says there are hundreds of openings in mid-Michigan’s information technology field. Some go unfilled for weeks and months.

Administrators of the recently launched “e-pathways” program say they’re off to a good start. But increasingly, they admit it’s a challenge finding applicants with the time and skills to embark on the free, but rigorous, program.

E-Pathways launched modestly last March with a dozen students embarking on any of three options at Lansing Community College: Associates Degrees in either Computer Programming or Computer Science, or certification for software testing. The $4.4 million Department of Labor grant covers classes and textbooks. 

59-year Scot Richards of Holt was phased out of the banking industry after more than 30-years, 15 of it testing software.  The Alma College graduate shares a trait that’s not uncommon among e-pathways students.

“I believe that employers are looking for a degree perhaps that is not dated 1974,” he says.

The 59-year old downsizing casualty says the state of the I.T. job market in Lansing gave him the confidence to apply.

“There are so many software hubs in Lansing,” he adds. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets that Lansing has approximately 300 different software houses.”

Analysts say hundreds of openings exist covering virtually all industries. Eight months into classes, e-pathways administrators say participants are starting to land local jobs and internships, though some are contingent on continuing or finishing schooling.

But as e-pathways nears a deadline for new January class openings, administrators admit that finding promising candidates is tough.  Andrea Ragan of Capital Area Michigan Works!’ says a “trifecta” of factors is posing a challenge.

“Being interested, eligible and qualified…and we understand that’s a narrow band, a narrow scope of people,” she says.

For starters, the Labor Department requires recipients be unemployed or underemployed.  Hitting the bar in math and science is another hurdle.  Associates degree prospects begin their studies with pre-calculus.  Administrators say applicants should have taken high school Algebra.  Ragan also says the commitment might be too much for people with existing job and family responsibilities. 

“We’re asking someone to make a two-year commitment to pursue a degree before they will likely be employed full-time again,” she explains.

Previous I-T experience is not mandatory, but it helps. 

Still, for the right people with the right stuff, e-pathways appears to be the ticket.  After being laid off in 2009, 58-year old former network operations manager Al Garstka plans a transition.

“(I’m) getting into a new field,” he says. “I’m still going to be in I-T, but into software testing, which is a very new field and this is one of the first schools offering it.”

Scholarships include training in ‘soft skills’ like person-to-person communication and job interviewing. 

There are even chances to connect with area employers.   Last Friday, students met with over 40 company reps at a speed networking event at LCC West.  There, Tom Osika--representing Delta Dental in Okemos drives home the need for qualified I-T personnel.

“There’s more job opportunities than…we can find local candidates to fill,” he says. “So sometimes we actually have to go outside the area.   This is an opportunity for us to stay within the area to try to find good candidates for our positions.”

Osika says Delta expects to add to its I-T staff, which in Okemos alone, numbers over 200.  

E-pathways aims to graduate or train 350 students in Lansing, assuming it lands that many qualified applicants.  So far, all of the openings have been filled, but planners are growing concerned that some desks could be empty in 2013.

The e-pathways grant expires in 2015. 

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