Preparing for the Future

Council unites with others to get Arizona’s workforce ready

by Don Rodriguez

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The Arizona Technology Council has partnered with the Arizona Commerce Authority on separate yet related initiatives to prepare the state’s workforce for technology jobs expected to be in demand well into the future. While their joint efforts actually began nearly two years ago, both organizations are starting to see a more solid game plan take shape for preparing more people to enter the state’s IT ecosystem.

Arizona IT Workforce Summit

The work began in April 2014 with the Arizona IT Workforce Summit I when Steven G. Zylstra, the Council’s president and CEO, and Rosalyn Boxer, the Authority’s Workforce vice president, co-hosted representatives of 35 principal Arizona hiring companies and workforce influencers. Douglas Griffen, founder and director of the Scottsdale-based Advanced Strategy Center, facilitated an interactive component of the session.

While they all agreed Arizona was not at the level they wanted to be, there were factors already in place to be leveraged for the future. They included a strong and developing tech environment, a stable infrastructure free of such issues as natural disasters, and growth in the number of tech companies drawn to the state. But Arizona’s reputation needed some work, they said. Outsiders didn’t about know the quality of education that existed and the universities’ ability to develop a pipeline of IT workforce candidates. The state also needed to shed negative publicity that arose with issues such as the anti-illegal immigration measure SB1070.

The participants that day considered the initiative feasible, noting that hiring companies and educators needed to take the lead. However, they needed the support of the state and key interest groups involved in economic development and workforce development.

In June 2014, Arizona IT Workforce Summit II was held. This time, the session was conducted with approximately 60 Arizona participants, including a broad set of Arizona educators and their institutions, recruiters, important hiring companies and workforce influencers. They felt the IT workforce initiative offered a far-reaching impact for the state, helping rebuild Arizona’s national and global image. To do this, according to the key findings, a clear communications and brand strategy was needed to position the state as one of the premier IT locations in the country. In addition, the attendees recognized the education segment held the key for both the short-term strategy of boosting the workforce readiness of current students and the long-term vital strategy of educational integration with K-12 through higher education that is aligned with the needs of the industry.

Also, three committees were assembled to provide leadership around each of these ideas. They were:

  • Marketing – to create a unified image that summarizes the state’s unique value proposition
  • Education and New Graduates – to close the gap between the growing demand for talented IT professionals in Arizona and the current pipeline of emerging qualified workforce
  • Retain and Strengthen Current IT Professionals – to improve the support structures, networking opportunities and professional development options for the state’s IT professionals.
  • Communities that Work Partnership

With both the input on where the focus needed to be for workforce development along with support, the Council and the Authority sought outside assistance to help sharpen their strategy. That assistance came when they were among seven regional partnerships selected to participate in the Communities that Work Partnership, an effort to strengthen regional economies by equipping workers with the skills needed for 21st century jobs and accelerating industry-led workforce development and training efforts. The Partnership is a joint project of the U.S. Economic Development Administration at the Department of Commerce and the Workforce Strategies Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

Zylstra and Boxer were joined by Authority President and CEO Sandra Watson and David Hedberg, Cox Communications’ director of field application development, to begin a 15-month intensive accelerated learning exchange designed around the region’s pursuit of job-driven talent development strategies to promote economic growth.

The work already has begun to develop their vision. At the Partnership’s Learning Exchange in Baltimore, the team completed a series of exercises designed to assess performance levels in key areas, identify target areas of focus and structure initial strategies for addressing them. The six areas of focus are:

  • Filling the near-term workforce needs of industry.
  • Overcoming the barriers for low-wage workers to advance in target sectors.
  • Effective, employer-validated career pathways.
  • Design and implement (with employers) work-based learning models.
  • Identify measures of success and track continuous improvement.
  • Sustainable funding for sector partnerships.

TechHire

As their work with the Partnership continues through September, the Council and the Authority have applied for a separate federal program to help with their plans to prepare new members of the workforce. In March 2015, President Obama launched TechHire, a multi-sector effort and call to action to empower Americans with the skills they need for well-paying jobs. While the learning can come through universities and community colleges, it also can come through nontraditional approaches like “coding boot camps” and high-quality online courses that can rapidly train workers.

For the Arizona model, the education support would come from the Maricopa Community Colleges, Pima Community College and Cochise Community College. The target populations would be people ages 17 to 29 who are out of secondary school and have barriers to training and employment, and special populations of individuals at least 17 years old and out of secondary school with disabilities, limited English proficiency, or criminal records with barriers to training and employment.

To improve the likelihood that the populations will complete training and become employed, organizers would use specialized training strategies, support services and other focused services that include networking and job search, active job development, transportation, mentoring and financial counseling. They also would connect those who have received training or already have the skills required to do a job with employment, paid internships or registered apprenticeship opportunities that allow them to get work experience and prove themselves to hiring employers.

The Council and Authority are just in the application stage for TechHire support. Zylstra says they are seeking $5 million in funding over three years.

Markle Foundation

The Council is involved in another initiative to help fill the IT workforce gap in Arizona. This time, the partners include Arizona State University, LinkedIn and the Markle Foundation, a nonprofit whose Rework America is a nationwide initiative aimed at driving innovations that expand opportunities for employment and broaden ways for all Americans to learn and train for the work of the future.

Meetings are underway to fine-tune an “employer toolkit” that offers annotated, skill-based job descriptions for top tech jobs. Employers have critiqued the descriptions to help Markle “fill in” the gaps, Zylstra says. So far, the jobs discussed include database administrators, business intelligence analysts, and network engineers and architects. “The idea is to make the descriptions more effective by defining the competencies required in the job beyond just ‘computer science,’” he says.

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