There’s a big snag to growing the software sector in Vancouver and greater Portland: There simply aren’t enough skilled workers to meet the region’s industry demands.
The Columbia Willamette Workforce Collaborative and Workforce Southwest Washington have been working on solutions since meeting on the issue in 2015. And in 2017, the collaborative brought several groups together to build the TechTown Talent Strategy Plan, which enters its second year this summer. But through its studies of the sector the group has hit a major snag: Efforts to fill the pipeline with entry-level workers have gone well, but what employers really need is software experts with junior to senior level skills. And the group has yet to figure out how to address that gap.
“There is a glut supply of entry-level workers, but the demand is for junior to senior level workers,” said Cass Parker, senior industry initiatives manager for Workforce Southwest Washington. “We’ve got a gap. And this is eye opening for industry and the development board – how do we address that gap?”
The group started taking a deeper look at the software sector shortly after Parker was hired in 2015. At the end of that year, the collaborative decided to use its sector analysis model to build an analysis of the local software industry. The model includes things like labor market data, surveys of what employers say their challenges are and a host of other information. The collaborative also reached out to the Columbia River Economic Development Collaborative and local chambers of commerce, Parker said.
“We took all of that, and we saw a need to build a tech resource plan,” Parker said. “It took us some time, though. Part of the reason was when we began looking at the tech sector, we noticed a large swath of tech employers, but also a larger number of tech occupations at non-tech employers.”
Technology and software jobs span into far more industries than just software engineering. Pretty much every big operation – grocery stores, retail chains, hospitals, city governments and the like – all have information technology departments. And those workers qualify as tech occupations, but the employers aren’t tech employers, said Julie Maglione, communications manager for Workforce Southwest Washington.
“For instance, a hospital with a huge IT staff would fall under the category of tech occupations, but not tech sector,” Maglione explained.
Because of the complicated tech worker landscape, in 2016, the collaborative realized it needed to make a more detailed plan to address concerns. And in November 2016, the group started building the TechTown Talent Strategy Plan, which launched in July 2017 and will run through July 2019.
“We really wanted to get info and hear from both sector and non-tech sector leaders,” she said. “What ended up happening is we really did have a large number of tech companies at that November 2016 meeting.”
The tech employer sector is pretty different from the broader tech occupations sector. Generally, software businesses that employ mostly tech workers are smaller, with five or six employees. To train up workers with entry-level skills, they need to take a senior staffer off of projects to invest time in training. And most small tech companies can’t afford that, Parker said.
“So, for now they’re conditioned to have to look for talent outside the local market, much to our dismay,” Parker said.
Another thing industry told the group is that they wanted more diversity in tech workers – especially more women and people of color, since the industry is dominated by white males. So, the collaborative included increasing diversity as a goal in every step of its plan – which includes looking at people in the industry, access to the industry and available jobs, she said.
After the initial meeting in 2016, the collaborative invested in tech boot camp training for about six months for local workers, but it failed to fill the gap and simply added more entry-level workers to the somewhat flooded pool, Parker said.
“The folks that come out of that are very entry level,” Parker said. “They have an overview of several programming languages, but no experience yet.”
To try to find answers and ways to fill the gap to get the experienced workers they need, the collaborative is planning to put together a panel of parties interested in the tech sector in mid-July. And the group is also actively looking for more participants and ideas.
“The more voices we can get – the more people can come to the table,” Maglione said. “We’d love them to get involved in the community.”
They’d also like to see more participation from hospitals, the city, school districts and local software companies.
“Sometimes we have to pivot,” Parker said. “If the plan isn’t making sense for us or for industry, then we need to change things.”
Parker said interested parties should feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (360) 567-1076.