GettyImages_153030424With the explosive growth in Austin’s high tech industry, can companies find enough tech talent locally?
That’s a big issue technology executives in central Texas are grappling with right now, said Susanne Bowen, CEO of PeopleAdmin and chair of the Austin Technology Council’s Community Foundation.
She moderated a panel of experts on the subject of “Disruptive Talent Development: Global War for Skills” at the Austin Technology Council’s CEO Summit last week at the Austin City Limit’s Moody Theater.
Austin is expected to create 10,000 new high tech jobs by 2017 and 2,400 of those openings are for software developers, according to an ATC survey. Yet the local education pipeline will fill only about 23 percent of those positions, Bowen said.
That means the technology skill pipeline in the science technology engineering and math, known as STEM, fields are critical to fuel growth, she said.
“We’re a net importer of technical talent and we have been for more than 20 years,” Bowen said. “So the future is plain for Austin’s tech workforce. Our demand has and will continue to outstrip the supply.’
The technology skills shortage isn’t going to be solved by poaching employees from other local companies, Bowen said. And companies cannot continue to rely strictly on recruiting and importing that talent from other areas.
“Those are not sustainable, nor cost effective solutions to the challenge,” Bowen said. “So we need to grow our own talent here in central Texas.’’
And the best way to do that is to launch an assertive and aggressive campaign to engage educators, parents and students about the opportunities in STEM fields, Bowen said.
A huge shortage of engineers exists in Austin and nationwide, said Michael Raiford, vice president of manufacturing at Samsung Austin.
“If we don’t keep the labor force here that’s educated in high tech then we won’t be able to attract businesses,” he said.
He grew up in Austin and became an engineer. He wants his kids and other children to have those same choices and job opportunities in Austin.
As a CEO of a tech company, the biggest challenge Gene Austin faced was he couldn’t find people fast enough to fuel the company’s growth, he said. Austin, president of Bazaarvoice, got involved in the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education taskforce to help find solutions.
“We really have a challenge,” he said. “We really have an opportunity at the same time.”
Daniel Planko, partner University Ventures, says one solution is to build specialized engineering institutions.
“This is a national problem,” he said “This is a global problem. “
The skills gap begins in grade school, said Austin.
The focus of the education system has been on how many kids can graduate high school, he said. It has not been on college preparedness, he said.
Kids start dropping out of math in fifth and sixth grade, said Raiford. They need to stay in math and science to become an engineer in college, he said.
“Out of the people who enter college to be an engineer less than half make it,” he said. “We really have a weed out culture instead of a weed in culture.”
One solution to get kids more engaged at an early age is to have engaging teachers teaching math and science, according to the panelists. They said that can be accomplished by paying teachers based on performance.
Kids have to be engaged in fifth grade, said Planko. If they aren’t taking advanced math in junior high, it’s going to be really hard to catch up in high school and college.
Another way to spark kid’s interest in STEM fields is to have businesses involved in the schools.
Samsung Austin has a program “The Day in the Life of an Engineer” and gets requests from schools from all over, Raiford said.
“We’ve got to get more involvement in the schools and more exposure to kids to engineering at an early age,” he said.
Samsung also sends a lot of engineers, especially female engineers, to the schools for career days to talk to the kids about engineering.
“It’s an investment in our future to get all kids interested in STEM,” Raiford said.