IT worker shortage in central Wisconsin near 'crisis'

Only now are businesses realizing that traditional college curriculums are not meeting the growing demand of companies such as Epic and are turning to technical colleges to fill the gap.

By DAVE DALEY | July 15, 2015

Facing a shortage of information technology workers in the Wausau area, educators are scrambling to add more technical college classes and outreach programs that encourage high school students to choose a technology career over the traditional four-year college.

Dr. Lori A. Weyers, president of Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, says the shortage is reaching a “crisis” stage. “If you talk to any businessman, they’ll say, ‘I need as many (IT workers) as they can get me,” she says.

Officials at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, an hour south of Wausau, report the same shortage. “We can’t graduate enough students to fill the demand right now,” Tim Krause, head of the university’s department of computing and new media technologies, told the Wausau Daily Herald.

The university is also scrambling to hire enough faculty to teach computer science classes, says Chancellor Bernie L. Patterson. “It’s becoming very difficult  to hire faculty in computer sciences, just like it’s hard for the employers to hire programmers and people they need in the IT field,” Patterson told WSAW-TV.  “We’re expanding as quickly as we can.”

Skyward, an educational software company, is building its $30 million, 180,000-square-foot world headquarters in Stevens Point and expects to open its doors in December. “They hire our graduates all the time. They would hire 30 more programmers if we could produce them this afternoon,” Patterson says.

The rapidly expanding IT field, covering almost every aspect of the 21st-century economy, is the chief reason for the growing need for computer-savvy workers to write code for software, design web pages and develop network systems and security programs for businesses.

“The demand for IT workers is growing by leaps and bounds,” Weyers says. “In health care, in manufacturing, in education – it crosses every occupational group.”

One example is Epic Systems Corp., a huge health care tech company that develops software for hospitals and other health-related businesses. Based in the Madison suburb of Verona, Epic employs more than 8,000 workers and is continuing to expand, which is sucking away IT talent from other parts of the state.

Only now are businesses realizing that traditional college curriculums are not meeting the growing demand of companies such as Epic and are turning to technical colleges to fill the gap. Businesses need to send the message to high schools that a two-year technical college degree can land students a good-paying job and that a four-year baccalaureate degree is not needed.

“That’s the message we have to get out,” says Weyers. “We are a very viable choice. Our tagline is we’re the affordable, employable, transferable choice. ”

Technical colleges’ strategy

To meet that need, the 16 technical colleges in Wisconsin are working with high schools to establish IT academies in the schools that better prepare students for an IT career and train high school teachers to teach IT courses.

One carrot Northcentral offers high school students is dual credits for IT courses taken in high school that earn students credit once they move on to Northcentral. “Last year, we gave 8,000 credits to high school students and saved them a million dollars” in tuition costs, Weyers says.  “Even with those additional efforts, we still struggle to fill our programs to capacity.”

Volker Gaul, dean of Mid-State Technical College’s Stevens Point campus, says Mid-State also is trying to attract more students to its IT courses. “Our problem is increasing the interest in IT careers,” Gaul says. Wisconsin’s reputation of “harsh winters” does not help in Mid-State’s efforts to enroll out-of-state students, he adds.

The Portage County Business Council in Stevens Point is adopting programs to encourage local high school students to consider careers in IT, Gaul says. One selling point: Mid-State’s IT graduates have no problem finding jobs, he says, and the college can brag about a nearly 100% placement rate.

Businesses struggle to fill openings

Skyward plans to expand from 400 employees across the country to some 900 workers in Wisconsin alone in the next six years. Gaul suspects the company – which hopes to hire up to 20 programmers a year – will have trouble finding IT workers. “We barely graduate that many, and some grads do not meet Skyward’s standards.”

Renaissance Learning in Wisconsin Rapids, which develops software for accelerated learning programs in schools, finds its recruiters competing with other software firms for IT workers. “Certainly, there is a shortage of software developers and IT workers in central Wisconsin,” says John Corrigall, the company’s senior vice president-human resources and administration. “And because of a limited talent pool, businesses are often recruiting the same people. There’s just not enough of them. We’ve had and have openings we’re trying to fill as our needs for IT talent continue to grow.”

“There is a growing need in central Wisconsin for skilled information technology workers,” Corrigall adds. “Many firms have plans to continue to grow their IT workforce in the central Wisconsin area, and we all will be challenged to meet that need.”

Renaissance Learning employs 500 people in Wisconsin Rapids and 950 workers overall in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Customers of the company’s assessment, teaching and accelerated learning programs are in over a third of the schools in the U.S. and more than 60 countries, Corrigall says.

Because of the IT worker shortage, businesses and colleges in April formed a Central Wisconsin IT Alliance to help develop an information technology workforce in the region and to spark interest among students in the IT field. “And to encourage experienced professionals to come to this area or return home to central Wisconsin,” adds Corrigall.

He agreed that colleges and businesses need to encourage more middle and high school students to pursue a career in IT. “That is one answer,” Corrigall says. “It’s a longer strategy that will help us in five to seven years; that doesn’t help us now. The Alliance was formed to look at both the long-term need and to highlight the great opportunities and quality of life this area offers.”

Outdated perception of tech colleges

Weyers says one big problem two-year technical colleges face is the out-of-date image of the vocational school as just a place where you learn a trade, such as auto mechanics or welding. “We’re not the vochy-tech of old,” Weyers emphasizes.  “It’s a perception (problem) with some people in the schools (and) the parents. We still get referred to as a school, not college.”

“Our biggest challenge is our parents, to get them to see the value of our programs,” Weyers adds. Ironically, the students Northcentral attracts have less of a concern with that image. “Once we get (students) in the door, we don’t have a problem,” Weyers says. “They get it.”

Almost 20% of Northcentral’s students are, in effect, “graduate students” – people with four-year degrees who have turned to a technical college “to get an education in a field in which they can get a job,” Weyers says.

One typical example: a student with a four-year baccalaureate degree in history who does not want to teach history. “There are very limited career choices available to him,” Weyers points out.  In just two years, though, a technical college can provide students with the training to walk into good-paying jobs in a field such as IT the minute they graduate, Weyers says.

Data from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development shows that average IT salaries range from $83,000 for a software systems developer to $69,000 for a computer system analyst to $52,000 for a website developer to $44,000 for a computer user support specialist.

Officials emphasize that the IT shortage is not unique to Wausau but is a problem statewide, especially in the small-town and rural parts of Wisconsin, which are not as attractive to young professionals. “This is a national issue,” Weyers says. “For the economy of the future, 60% of the jobs will be technical.”

David Eckmann, special assistant to the chancellor for economic development at UW-Stevens Point, says he talked recently to a businessman who worried that he will need dozens of programmers in the next few years and is not hopeful he will be able to find them. The state’s education system is not meeting that need, Eckmann says. “We’re not building that pipeline.” And big cities such as Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis and software companies such as Epic are “pulling talent away,” Eckmann says.

Attracting young IT talent

Young professionals who graduate from UW-Madison and other state universities are attracted to California’s Silicon Valley and the East Coast, says Tricia Braun, deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Wisconsin and businesses need to do more to promote “the state’s great quality of life,” Braun adds. “An IT professional in his or her 20s, for example, not only wants a job with a nice salary and competitive benefits but also wants to live in a community where he or she feels connected and has ample recreational, cultural and entertainment options.”

To this end, the WEDC is implementing programs to boost “the commercialization of innovation” that helps provide capital and support to young entrepreneurs trying to start companies, Braun says. “We want to make sure that ideas and technology developed in Wisconsin stay in Wisconsin,” she adds.

Some think fears that a “brain drain” is sucking too many young IT graduates out of central Wisconsin may be overblown. The region’s IT graduates, by and large, stay in the state, and the “brain drain” that takes young professionals in other specialties to the state’s bigger cities, the Twin Cities and Chicago does not appear to be a major problem, they say.

Patterson says UW-Stevens Point focuses on attracting students from the region. “If you recruit from the rural parts of the state and you train in the rural parts of the state, you will retain your employees in the rural parts of the state,” he says. “It’s worked well in medical professions, and we think it’s applicable to other work as well.”

Over the past decade, 90% of the university’s Wisconsin residents stayed in the state after graduation, Patterson says. “That’s a huge success,” he adds.

Northcentral serves 30,000 students on six campuses in a 10-county area around Wausau and has no problem keeping most of its graduates in central Wisconsin. The college’s survey of its 2014 graduates found that 74% were employed within the 10-county region that the school serves, says Katie Felch, the college’s director of marketing and public relations.

Another 23% found jobs outside the college’s service area but still in Wisconsin, and only 3% went out of state for a job, Felch says. “We are retaining those individuals in our area,” she adds. “We feel we are the reverse brain drain in our area.” Felch notes that Northcentral draws most of its students from that same 10-county area and says that was a key factor in keeping so many of its graduates in the area.

Northcentral offers two-year degrees in five IT specialties – from computer specialist to software developer to web designer – and in three of those specialties, its graduates have found 100% employment, Felch says. “We have a very high employment rate,” she says. “Of our graduates, 93% are employed within six months.” Northcentral also offers a service called “TechConnect” that puts graduates in touch with employers seeking IT workers.

The state’s technical colleges also are working with traditional four-year colleges to make their credits transferrable should a student want to go on to earn a four-year degree.

Two years ago, Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges received a $23.1 million federal grant to expand IT programs that focus on dislocated workers and veterans in the state. Northcentral is using $6.2 million of the grant to work with businesses, develop IT curriculum and instruction at the college, and provide students with internships at private firms.

Work environment and culture

Community leaders in Wausau recognize the need to attract young professionals, including the IT talent that businesses need. Providing a comfortable work environment is a key factor in getting millennial professionals to locate in the Wausau area, says Nick O’Brien, Young Professionals and Special Projects manager at the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce.

Companies are realizing that casual dress codes and flexible hours are important to young professionals, as well as fitness centers, training in personal finances and information on local attractions, O’Brien says.

E3YP, a group of young professionals that holds social events and provides a network for young workers to exchange ideas, is an initiative of the Wausau Chamber of Commerce. Last April, the organization helped kick off Young Professionals Week in Wausau that gave “Bubbler Awards” to companies providing great work environments for young workers. E3YP – the E3 stands for Engage, Empower, Excite – was formed last September and is up to nearly 2,000 members and 30 business sponsors, O’Brien says.

“Businesses in the Wausau area said, ‘We’re losing young talent. What can we do to keep them?’ ” O’Brien says. “There’s been an unbelievable amount of support for the organization.”

Wausau is trying to make the city more attractive to keep young professionals such as IT workers in the area.  Brian Hoover, E3YP president, says Wausau is redeveloping its downtown river district to provide more housing and green space, and give the area a more urban flavor with the bike and walking paths and the farm-to-table restaurants that millennials and Gen Xers like.

“Culture is a big part of what millennials want. What they want is more to do – it’s not all about the job. Millennials like that urban culture. Young people really value the time off they can get,” says Hoover, 33, a senior financial analyst for Greenheck Fan Corp. in nearby Schofield.

Outdoor recreation is one of the Wausau area’s best attributes, and community leaders need to get that message out to young professionals. “We’ve really got to do a better job showcasing what we’ve got,” Hoover says. “There is a kind of brain drain. They (young professionals) go off to the bigger cities like Minneapolis and Chicago.”

Dave Daley, a journalist for 30 years, covered the Capitol for The Milwaukee Journal and legal affairs for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.