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Addressing the Talent Gap in Chicago: Use, Manage, BUILD

As the technology industry gains prominence in Chicago, I seem to be getting asked more and more about what we need to do to address the talent gap in Chicago (and to create jobs in Chicago). There is no question that we have an acute need for more talent to support the technology industry (this is true throughout the country) but we also need to recognize that that are many types of technology talent. Too often we amalgamate all talent into a single form and by doing so, we are doing a disservice to the future development of our workforce and our companies. The fact is that there are really 3 types of technology talent - Use, Manage, and Build. Use: All of our workers must know how to use technology to drive business productivity. Of course, the range of skills here goes from basic use of applications to intense analytics of data. If Chicago is going to be a top digital city, we need to make sure that the entire workforce has a deep sense of the use of technology as these skills will always be critical. It should be our civic goal to have the most digitally literate business class in the world. Manage: Manage is about the skills necessary to drive and manage the technical infrastructure that is critical for the success of our businesses. It ranges from desktop management to virtualized servers and networks and beyond. Programs such as Chicago Career Tech (CCT)and organizations such as CompTIA and its partners are doing a great job locally at providing the training and knowledge that is necessary to fill these positions. Just as Chicago has always been a transportation and logistics hub, so is it becoming the same for digital traffic. We need to have the workers to manage the trains. Build: Building is about technology skills needed to create a new product or service that fundamentally changes the way a company does business. From programmers to engineers to CTOs, these are the individuals that are taking the raw ingredients to make software, services, hardware and more. These skills are in the shortest supply. For ITA’s members, BUILD is the center of our universe. We do all we can to support use and manage but the fuel that drives our constituency is build. (We also need to address the commercial talent - sales, product, marketing - shortage but that’s a discussion for next week.) The challenge is great and must be solved to continue to grow our burgeoning technology community. So what do I believe we need to do about it to solve to the problem today as well as 10 years from now? The following:

University Students: Illinois has an INCREDIBLE brain drain problem. Our recent survey of CS/CE university students indicated that 73% of them planned to leave the state upon graduation. That’s why we started the ITA Fall Challenge which gets the students involved in the industry while in school so they don’t leave upon graduation. We must keep the best and brightest here in the state. 25 top students a year in Chicago means 15 new companies (and countless jobs) in a few years.

Professional Development: Give me a solid ruby on rails, python or android developer and I’ll give you a 100 job opportunities. This doesn’t even take into account the need for skills in new technologies and new development languages that are coming to the fore at all times against a market that is slow to react. Programs such as CodeAcademy.organd firms such as Forte Knowledgeare on the forefront on innovative ways to address it. We need to do all we can to support and develop training camps to address the professional development needs of the community and we need to do it NOW. Innovative Schools: Not all students want to go to college. Some just want to program or to be creative. Institutions such as Tribeca Flashpoint realize this and are meeting the needs of the market. These are institutions that seek to prepare students with real world experiences and also allow for the students to be creative through arts and technology. They’ve done an outstanding job of changing the paradigm – we need more of the schools and the graduates they produce if Chicago is to succeed. Get Out of the Old Line: Chicago has an enormous workforce but many great technology builders are wasting their talents keep companies alive that should have outsourced this development a long time ago. Focus on the core, get the workers into innovative external firms that can add value to the industries and hire them back to do what can’t be done internally. They will transform old-line industries in ways they can’t imagine while also giving them the time to develop new companies that will transform all businesses. Attract To Chicago: We absolutely need to attract talent from outside of Chicago to come here. There is no reason that we can’t be the technical talent Mecca of the Midwest (or even the country).ThinkChicago is a start but we need to think bigger. Let’s give people incentive to come. Let’s find ways to compensate the individuals or the companies that hire them to bring talent from outside of Illinois. I have no doubt that the dividend will reverberate throughout Chicagoland for decades.

Next Generation: As always, we also need to be thinking about the next generation of workers. We can’t simply lament today’s problems without finding both short and long-term solutions. That’s why ITA’s Chairman was instrumental in establishing Chicago Tech Academy and the results have been outstanding. Across the board all metrics are higher than traditional CPS schools. 300 students are showing that they care deeply and want to find ways to be leaders of the technology industry in the future. It’s a start but we can do more to support them. We need to use this as a basis to develop a long-term STEM education plan for Illinois that is focused on what we need to drive the economy for the next 30 years.

So next time anyone asks you about the workforce, take a look and figure out where you are and how you can drive use, manage or build. There’s a lot to do and it’s a big challenge but I have no doubt that in the city of “make no small plans,” we can develop the talent to drive the technology industry from burgeoning to the center of the Illinois economy.

Next week, the ITA Fall Challenge begins its tour of 10 universities across the state to introduce CS/CE students to some of the amazing companies that call Chicago home. Join us as we work with universities, businesses, civic organizations and local government to build a conduit of talent to our industry.

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