Companies’ high-tech jobs tougher to fill

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Education programs will help develop skills in local workforce

After two months as president/CEO of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, Joe Raso met the business community this week with sobering words: The city doesn’t yet have the workforce necessary to compete in the new global economy.

It’s something he didn’t have to tell Jay Jesse, CEO of Intelligent Software Solutions.

Jesse’s company has more than doubled in size in the past two years, and he is looking to fill between 50 and 75 high-tech software engineer jobs.

He’s had about the same number of vacancies for the past two years — though he hires five to 10 new people every other week.

“We’ve just exploded,” Jesse said, noting the company has gone from 120 employees to 800 nationwide in just a few years. “We’ve gotten these contracts from the government, and we need a very specific skill set to fill them. They’re difficult, complex programs. It’s very high-tech, very specific. And we can’t find them.”

ISS prefers to hire from the local community, but also recruits from its offices in Virginia, Florida, Massachusetts and New York. The company recently opened a Denver satellite office, just to try to fill more slots.

“These are good jobs; they’re high-paying,” Jesse said. “We want to recruit locally, but we’ve found that’s getting harder and harder to do. People can work virtually, but we prefer to have them here — face to face, where they can be part of the team.”

Jesse’s dilemma might seem unusual to a manufacturing company or a retail store — but it’s common in software engineering or information technology sectors.

Both have the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, said Jason Moyes, a Colorado Springs recruiter for national technology firm Robert Half Technology, which fills jobs for high-tech companies.

“I know ISS and their problem is extreme, even for the industry,” he said. “But all our clients are facing a shortage for people with IT skills. There’s a definite shortage nationwide, not just in Colorado Springs. It’s a problem for the entire nation.”

Moyes said the move toward technology created both a dual job market and a dual reality for jobseekers. People with high-tech, engineering, design and software skills are in high demand, while workers without those skills still face double-digit unemployment.

“There is an actual shortage,” he said. “And we’re waiting on the education systems to deliver the right number of people for the jobs. But employers, in the meantime, need to realize they might not find the exact right person. We tell clients to list what skills they want, and then to prioritize. They should hire based on their top priorities.”

Jobs to help Defense

Jesse is looking for software engineers to fill specific military and state department tasks — creating service-oriented architecture for reconnaissance programs. The software collects huge amounts of data for intelligence services to analyze.

“Primarily, we build a lot of large enterprise systems across the DoD (Department of Defense),” he said. “We help in areas of surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence. We’re watching our adversaries; we accumulate the information and rate it, and make it available to analysts.”

That job requires some java skills, enterprise software skills and database skills. It also requires people who can develop web-based programs, the direction the military is moving. But Jesse said even software engineers laid off from large defense contractors don’t necessarily have the exact skills he needs.

“And these are quick-moving contracts, fast turnaround,” he said. “So we don’t really have time to train them.”

Business is growing, despite DoD uncertainty about cuts to programs. Jesse said he’s now selling ISS software overseas to customers in U.S.-ally nations like Great Britain and Australia.

“I don’t see us slowing down,” he said. “Because we’re the people you go to when you don’t have a lot of money. No job is too small.”

Educating the next generation of local software developers falls to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. While recognizing the current problem, UCCS leaders believe it will be short-lived.

The university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science realized a 27 percent increase in student enrollment in the past two years, and another 25 percent increase this fall, said R. “Dan” Dandapani, dean of the college. Those students are connected with local offices for paid internships.

“It’s one of the 10 hardest jobs to fill,” he said. “But with the rules of supply and demand, they are some of the top-paying jobs too.”

In fact, students don’t even have to wait to get a job — engineering and IT are the highest-paid internships for majors. Engineers make between $15 and $25 an hour as interns, while computer science majors average about $19 an hour.

“Everyone else falls below that,” Dandapani said. “For students in financial difficulties, that can make a difference in paying for college.”

Local involvement

UCCS works with local businesses to provide the internships, and in turn, local businesses provide support to the program. Desperate for qualified engineers and IT professionals, local corporations are pouring money into UCCS programs.

Bal Seal, which just announced an expansion in Colorado Springs, is providing three scholarships at the graduate level, essentially externships, to educate students and then have them work at the corporation.

“And Agilent gave $200,000 in equipment last year to the student engineering lab,” Dandapani said. “The goal is to educate and then populate local companies.”

Atmel, another company expanding in the Springs, is providing in-service training through the university — but not to undergraduates. Atmel’s starting even earlier, at the middle-school level.

“We even have a leadership council group from local industry to make sure that we eventually have students working in the local corporations with the skills they need,” Dandapani said.

Recruiting college students is proving easier, as UCCS has developed a unique program with Pikes Peak Community College. Students can take the basics at PPCC, but get a UCCS engineering adviser.

“We found that they were taking a bunch of classes they didn’t need, and it was keeping them in school longer,” Dandapandi said. “This way, they can start out at Pikes Peak and still graduate in four years.”

While the university’s preparations won’t necessarily help Jay Jesse with ISS’ employment problems, it’s encouraging for Colorado Springs’ future.

“We are in a demographic civil and global war for talent,” Raso said in his presentation to city business leaders, “and we are losing at this time. But luckily we have assets to help us reverse the situation.”