Companies looking for technologists are finding them in different places

Two years ago, future software developer Jonathan Hinds was earning minimum wage as a line cook. He had recently moved to Delaware from Maryland, where he was attending college, but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition.

That fall, he took a free 16-week course called ITWorks, which prepares young people for entry-level information technology positions.

“ITWorks let me go straight to the things I care about learning,” he says.

By the time he graduated in early 2018, he had two support-level jobs. They beefed up his resume and gave him the experience to pursue a career in programming.

Last fall, he left both jobs and enrolled in a 12-week programming boot camp called Zip Code. A week after graduation, he accepted a job as a software developer at SEI Investments.

Jonathan Hinds built a career in IT by taking advantage of a number of training programs available in Delaware. | Photo by Ron Dubick

Hinds’ whirlwind career path shows how there are many ways to build a career in information technology. 

Jennifer McDermott, executive director for global technology workforce strategy at JPMorgan Chase, said employers and educational institutions are increasingly coming together to talk about what skills are needed in tech.

“The beauty of these conversations is there’s a fit for many different people who want to become technologists,” she says. “Depending on your situation, there’s an option for you.”

Matching training with career

Whether they’re just starting out or looking to switch careers, a person interested in IT has choices.

In this industry, employers “care more about what you can do,” says Patrick Callihan, executive director of Tech Impact, the nonprofit that runs ITWorks. “Not to diminish four-year degrees at all, but there are so many jobs in IT now that depending on your entry point it’s more important how productive you can be.”

Especially for entry-level jobs, certifications can be a way for workers to show what they know without spending years in the classroom. In ITWorks, students earn an entry-level certification called CompTIA A+.

“If you’re a hiring manager in IT or a CIO (chief information officer), I think certifications are extremely important,” Callihan says.

Michael Helfrich, Cisco Networking Academy instructor at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, agreed that certifications are very valuable, both in the industry and for students on a path to college. “People familiar with them put a lot of value in Cisco certifications, in particular, because they are difficult to earn,” he said. “Some institutions of higher education will give credit for having a certification.”

Help desks often make for good entry-level jobs. In May, Delaware employers had 181 job postings for computer user support specialists with an average salary of $58,780, according to data collected by the state labor department.

Clint Perkinson, director of information systems at Lewes-based Beebe Healthcare, said he looks mostly for soft skills like critical thinking rather than purely technical knowledge when recruiting for their service desk. 

“The top item is not to take things personally when somebody reports there’s a problem,” he says. That may sound easy, but for some people, “that’s like a dagger in the spine.”

A low unemployment rate is also tilting the landscape in the applicants’ favor.

“We’re seeing much higher employability rates today than we were five years ago,” Callihan says.

“We believe our students are high-quality, very skilled and we would love for the market to make that shift” toward hiring workers with two-year degrees, said Justina M. Sapna, vice president for academic affairs at Delaware Technical Community College. “I think they would be pleasantly surprised.”

Delaware’s teaching institutions are also increasingly trying to expose young people to technology careers in high school or earlier. The Delaware Pathways program offers work-based learning and early college opportunities to high-schoolers.

The state offers two IT pathways: computer science and CISCO Networking Academy, which is offered only in the state’s four vocational high schools.

At Sussex Tech, which has 41 students in its Cisco program, 2019 graduate Matt McLaughlin is headed to the University of Delaware with plans to become a computer engineer.

He graduated high school last June with multiple certifications in computer networking, Windows, and Cisco software. “If I wanted to, I could get a job right out of high school because of those certifications,” he said.

Of course, it’s worth asking more basic questions about IT jobs: Do they exist, and where are they?

Are the jobs there?

There is some evidence that IT hiring remains strong in Delaware. In May, the most recent month for which statewide job posting data were available, nine of the 50 occupations with the most postings were in an IT field. 

The second-highest occupation was application software developers — the people who make an app for that — with 758 postings and nearly 5,000 existing jobs. Their average annual pay is $106,730.

One factor behind the demand is that increasingly virtually all companies, not just technology firms, now hireIT workers.

“Five to seven years ago, when you looked at IT jobs they were in IT-focused companies,” said Sapna, the Delaware Tech vice president.

JPMorgan Chase has been particularly hungry for talent. As of mid-August, the company had 81 software developer positions posted for Delaware alone. Their work with Zip Code and others has helped to build a pipeline for many of these future developers, McDermott says.

When asked what a young person could do today to get ready for a job at her company, McDermott says they’re looking for more than technical skills; an ideal developer is one who can work with a team.

She recommends seeking out “any opportunity you can get to mirror that in your life experiences, like working on team projects or in customer service roles.”

Health care, too, has a heavy demand for software experts, not so much in writing new code but in adapting medical records software for their own company’s use.

Like other employers, Beebe Healthcare has been having trouble finding software applications expertise, so they’ve hired employees around the country who can work remotely, Perkinson says.

At Sussex Tech, students can get a head start on their workforce experience through the school’s Career Capstone program, a work-based learning initiative which provides seniors the opportunity to work part-time in their technical field.

McLaughlin spent part of his senior year assisting the school’s technology services staff, gaining more than 500 hours of on-the-job experience and earning a paycheck at the same time. He installed and moved computers and set up network systems, hands-on experience that will be valuable in his future career and studies.

DelTech revamps IT training

About five years ago, Delaware Tech heard from employers that they weren’t meeting the industry’s needs and should rethink the way they were training IT workers, said Sapna. A survey found that only about half of graduates in the class of 2018 were employed in their field of study. They aim for 85% of their grads to be employed in their field, so they knew they had to make changes.

Working with its advisory committee of employers and internal IT staff, Delaware Tech designed its programs around three broad specialties: information security, networking and programming. Students learn basic IT skills their first year, then move into their concentrations during the second year.

As in other fields, Delaware Tech also made non-technical skills — like communication, teamwork and problem solving — a core part oftheir curriculum.

“Often what we’ve heard [from employers] is, ‘We can do the specific training. We need students who have 21st century learning skills,’” said Kelly McVeigh, acting vice president for information and instructional technology at Delaware Tech. Though technology keeps changing, these skills are timeless.

Interaction with real-world problems is a theme of the program, she says. Employers have given Delaware Tech case studies of actual problems and they hold events like “capture the flag,” in which competitors pit their IT security skills against each other.

The second year requires students to spend 90 hours in job shadowing or an unpaid internship to acquire real-world experience.

McDermott, with JPMorgan Chase, praised Delaware Tech for listening to what the industry wants.

“They do a really good job of bringing stakeholders to the table and talking about what is and is not working,” she said.

In addition to two-year degrees in Information Technology and Networking, Delaware Tech offers a variety of certification classes ranging from 180 to 480 hours. 

Delaware Tech also offers free job training in Dover and Wilmington funded through a $3.5 million federal grant. To qualify, a person has to have an associate’s degree or six years of experience.

Hinds, the young software developer, says boot camps like Zip Code are a particular bargain when compared to the cost of a four-year college. Tuition at Zip Code is $12,000, of which one-fourth is paid upfront and the rest by the employer or the student, once they get a job. But it was easily worth it, Hinds says.

“It changed my life so drastically, at a fraction of the price going to college would’ve been,” he said. 

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