The information technology industry is growing faster than the national workforce can keep up.
Tech jobs are projected to increase by 12% through 2028 – much quicker than any other occupation, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That equates to nearly 368,000 job openings each year with a greater demand for cloud computing and cybersecurity skills.
It’s already showing. Tech job postings rose 32% in the first half of 2019 from the year prior, according to federal employment data analyzed by industry trade group CompTIA. In third quarter 2019, there were about 918,000 unfilled IT jobs, according to the analysis.
Springfield isn’t immune.
“There’s a huge backlog when recruiting IT talent here locally,” said Kevin Waterland, co-owner and general manager of Pitt Technology Group LLC. “There’s a lot of companies fighting over the same pool of people. … We’re quite a way out in catching up to that need.”
Colleges have begun implementing degree and certificate programs over the last few years for IT and cybersecurity. And a collaboration between local colleges is underway to launch a cybersecurity training program for students in the Jordan Valley Innovation Center.
Gov. Mike Parson recommended in his recent State of the State address nearly $1.8 million for Missouri State University to fund the Missouri Cybersecurity Center of Excellence. It’s a collaboration between MSU, Drury University and Southwest Baptist University to give students real-world experience in cybersecurity, said Shannon McMurtrey, a Drury professor who co-developed the concept.
Pending state budget approval, the MCCOE is expected to open this summer. The business model is self-sustaining: McMurtrey said students will fill entry-level positions at the center through school internship programs, and the center will sell its cybersecurity services to businesses.
“Cybersecurity is a tricky area to get an internship for students due to the sensitive nature of the material,” he said. “The MCCOE is intended to tighten the feedback loop between the industry and academia, so that when a student ... goes to work for an industry partner, they’re more prepared to be productive on day one.”
Tech degrees are starting to take shape in the Ozarks.
Drury is two years into its tech programs. Housed in the Breech School of Business Administration, students can graduate with a major and minor in cyber risk management, and graduate students are able to enroll in a cybersecurity certificate program, said Clif Petty, interim dean for the Breech School of Business.
Petty said the cybersecurity program has grown to 20 students from eight in year one. Two students will graduate this year, he said.
At MSU, over 50 students have graduated with an IT-related degree or certificate in the last three years, according to school officials. McMurtrey created the school’s cybersecurity programs during his 15-year career at MSU, he said.
Evangel University is on board, too. The school will launch study tracks such as app development, cybersecurity and data science in the fall, said Jeremy Harris, an associate professor in the business department. Evangel’s also planning a web development and networking track in 2021.
At Pitt Technology, Waterland said about half of employee training is learned on the job with an experienced staff member. The company specializes in IT support, software development, cloud and internet services, low voltage cabling, and audio and video lighting integration.
“Since we do so many different things, we do broad-level training. Then, we have them adapt their skill set to our clients’ needs,” he said. “Sometimes a lot of that happens on the fly.”
That’s common throughout the industry because of the ever-changing nature of technology, he said. But it’s also a testament to the lack of trained job applicants.
Between 2018 and 2019, the number of accounts Pitt Technology served grew by 47% while employee count dropped slightly, according to Springfield Business Journal list research. In the next few years, Waterland said Pitt Technology plans to expand its cloud-based services, artificial intelligence in software development. The company recorded $6 million in 2019 revenue.
“As our company increases in size, we’ll have to backfill that with employees,” he said. “Our employee count is directly proportional to our revenue because our employees bill by the hour.”
Pitt Technology also is involved in an upcoming collaboration with The Northwest Project/Drew Lewis Foundation Inc. and The Geek Foundation to train low-income women who want to enter the industry. A report from the National Center for Women and Information Technology found women made up only 26% of the 2018 tech workforce.
The free program will be roughly five months long with a few evening classes a week beginning in May, with funding coming through a $24,000 grant from Community Foundation of the Ozarks, said Krista Peryer, co-founder and president of The Geek Foundation. Students will then move on to apprenticeships at partnering companies.
JMark Business Solutions Inc. is reviving its apprenticeship program this summer. President and CEO Thomas Douglas said 10 of JMark’s 95 employees first started as apprentices.
“Tech has grown so quickly and the dependency has grown so substantially that we just didn’t build enough talent into the workforce,” Douglas said. “The community as it is today can’t create the talent fast enough, so we’re going to have to make our own.”
JMark generated $23 million in 2019 revenue – a figure that’s grown nearly 40% in recent years, according to SBJ research. During that time, the company shrunk in employee size to increase efficiencies and salaries, Douglas said. As the industry continues to grow, he expects to increase employee count by 10%-15% over the next few years.
The discussion of talent retention has been ongoing in Springfield, and IT officials hope the growing industry can lend a hand.
Waterland points to Springfield’s cost of living as an important factor in keeping graduates local.
U.S. Census data show housing costs in Silicon Valley cities, such as San Jose and San Francisco, California, are among the highest in the country with 2018 median monthly payments near $1,900 for rent and a $3,500 mortgage payment. By comparison, Springfield’s median monthly housing payments ranged from $730 in rent to a nearly $950 mortgage payment, according to the data.
Remote staff also is a factor.
“I’ve seen an uptick in people doing remote work for out-of-state companies,” Waterland said. “They’ll get those West Coast salaries for software development and will do it locally.”
Petty said talent retention will come naturally as more IT businesses open and organizations create in-house tech positions. He also points to the MCCOE as a potential catalyst for a local hub of cybersecurity expertise.
“It’s a little bit like the Silicon Valley effect,” he said. “The more folks who are focused on that here attracts people who have that interest.”
For Douglas, a missing piece in Springfield is the marketing to become a technology hub.
“The challenge we’re going to have as an industry and as a community is the marketing story to those individuals … that they don’t have to go to Silicon Valley or the East Coast in order to be utilized,” he said. “This will help those young folks coming out of school understand they don’t have to look anywhere. They can have a great life here.”
A Dallas couple follow their bakery franchise dreams to Springfield, and now a Joplin store is on the way.