Tech industry, schools addressing shortage of qualified workers

By Matt Tomsic
mtomsic@scbiznews.com
Published in the Dec. 3, 2012, print edition

Lowcountry tech companies are looking for ways to reverse a shortage of qualified workers by supporting computer science programs at the college level and exciting high school students about the tech field.

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but we’re able to get it done,” said Shawn Jenkins, founder and CEO of Benefitfocus. “We have more demand than supply right now in Charleston.”

The tech field is growing in Charleston and across the nation.

“It isn’t just a Charleston thing, it’s a national thing and an international thing,” said Kevin Eichelberger, founder and CEO of Blue Acorn. “We have a huge talent shortage across the globe, which is something a lot of tech companies struggle with.”

The Charleston Digital Corridor released its annual wage and job growth survey, which found that each of its member companies added jobs through 2012, and 73% of the companies expected to continue hiring through the final two months of the year.

Digital Corridor companies reported average wages of $67,000 compared to an average wage of $41,000 for the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville metro area, and $39,000 for the state of South Carolina.

Nationwide, software developers’ median pay was $91,000 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects a 30% increase in employment for software developers by 2020. Computer programmers’ median pay was $71,000 in 2010, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 12% increase in jobs by 2020.

Local needs

Nate DaPore, founder CEO of PeopleMatter, said the Lowcountry tech sector could employ up to 200 computer science graduates each year given its mix of companies.

During 2012, Blackbaud filled 226 jobs, including 70 hires for technical jobs, said Mary Beth Westmoreland, vice president of engineering for the Daniel Island company.

The positions include engineers, technical support, software developers, designers and others, Westmoreland said.

Blackbaud recruits through its website and has had success getting graduates from the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. The company also recruits from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and the University of Texas at Austin.

“We really have a diverse mix of folks,” Westmoreland said. “They love coming here.”

Benefitfocus also hires from across the Southeast, recruiting from South Carolina universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. Weeks ago, the company held a job fair and more than 200 people came. Benefitfocus employs about 700.

Westmoreland said the competition for talent and the recruitment benefits all Lowcountry tech businesses.

“My belief has always been to have smart people together in a geographical area where they can come together and share ideas and innovate,” she said. “That’s a great thing for us, absolutely great.”

Mitchell Davis, founder and chief business officer for BiblioLabs, said the supply of Lowcountry tech talent is something his company has thought about for years. In four years, the company has gone from 0 to 26 employees, and many of those are engineers.

BiblioLabs has paid internships for college students and provides a computer science scholarship at the College of Charleston.

“We’ve done a lot of legwork that has made meeting our needs certainly not easy but probably easier than it had been otherwise,” Davis said. “If we had to hire 50 engineers in the next year that would be different. I think the tech companies are certainly going to continue to grow and make this more of a creative and a technology software hub.”

Outreach

The College of Charleston and its computer science program is seeing the demand, both nationally and locally, said Chris Starr, department chair of computer science at the college.

“We have seen industry wax and wane over the decades,” Starr said. “But today we are both on an upswing and the biggest upswing I have seen in my career.”

Starr said more and more students are coming to the College of Charleston to pursue a computer science degree, and since 2006, the computer science program has grown annually about 16%. During 2006, the program had about 68 students, a number that has grown to 255 as of fall 2012.

Starr sees demand continuing to grow along with computer science enrollment, and the college is working with Lowcountry tech companies as part of its growth plan.

The college monitors enrollment trends and balances them with its budgetary obligations and the needs of other departments, said George Hynd, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the college.

“In terms of thinking strategically about where we are now, I think we have to recognize that the curve in enrollments may be accelerating,” Hynd said. “It may be a little bit hard to know how long that enrollment trend will be sustained.”

Hynd said the computer science departments also saw increased enrollment during the tech boom years ago, but that interest cycled down before increasing recently.

“We really are sensitive to the growing need of the tech community, and we certainly do want to grow the program,” Hynd said. “The problem of course is there are other programs that have very significant needs as well, so one needs to be really careful about charging full steam ahead with the new best thing without due consideration of all of the other needs.”

Starr echoed other tech leaders, saying outreach has to start in high school and middle school to get kids interested in computer science fields.

The College of Charleston offers dual credit computer programming courses at Porter-Gaud School and Wando High School and hosts summer camps.

At Blackbaud, Westmoreland said outreach should begin as early as possible.

“Don’t assume that you only have to worry about the middle school folks,” she said.

Blackbaud has internship and shadowing programs, and Westmoreland works with the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, community at Wando.

Davis of BiblioLabs said the community and schools needs to provide information and training in computer science to kids who might be interested.

“It has to become something that is being driven at least through the high schools,” Davis said. “It’s not nerdy kids who do this now. This is a ticket to a life of making a good income and being able to move where you want. It’s the career of the future.”

Reach Matt Tomsic at 843-849-3144.

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