State addresses dearth of IT workers


LANSING — A shortage of qualified information technology workers is hurting Michigan businesses, experts say.

Information technology encompasses computer programming and data management in industries as diverse as health care and auto manufacturing, said Chris Knapp, the IT and media talent director for the state’s Workforce Development Agency.

“IT is embedded in just about every industry and every kind of company out there,” Knapp said.

In March there were 15,000 online job advertisements for openings in Michigan requiring math and computer skills, according to the Conference Board Help Wanted Online Database, a group collecting data on Internet job hunting statistics. These ads made up nearly 10 percent of all online jobs ads for the state.

The demand for computer skills and mathematically based jobs in Michigan is expected to grow at nearly double the state average for all other fields between 2012 and 2022, according to Michigan’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

Not only are they in demand, but IT workers also make good money in a wide range of careers that can start at $48,000 a year and go upward of six figures, according to the bureau.

The shortage of qualified employees affects a swath of businesses in the state, some business experts said.

“We have held annual regional IT career fairs, something we don’t normally do, but the shortage has been so severe,” said Janie McNabb, CEO of Networks Northwest, a Traverse City workforce and business development agency.

The fairs draw employers from 10 counties, she said.

“I think the struggle is the same across the board,” said Ben Stratton, an account executive at Micro Visions, a Grand Rapids-based IT consulting firm.

Micro Visions for a long time has found the search for new employees relatively unfruitful, he said. There could be several reasons, Stratton said, including fewer college graduates wanting to stay in Michigan.

“Michigan is starting to pick back up in the economy, but a lot of people may have moved away to find other opportunities,” he said. “Right now we’re able to keep our head above water.”

But a lack of qualified employees hurts his company’s ability to take on new clients.

To counteract the shortage, the federal and state governments are pouring millions of dollars in grants into community colleges and other institutions preparing workers for fields related to math, science and technology, Knapp said.

Federal investment since 2011 totals $26.3 million in Michigan alone, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Another $77.7 million went to community college consortiums nationwide.

These state or federal government initiatives usually pair employers with educational institutions teaching IT skills, Knapp said. These include community colleges in Ingham, Genesee, Oakland and Macomb counties, as well as local partners like Capital Area Michigan Works! a Lansing based employment agency.

IT jobs usually require a two- or four-year college degree, Knapp said. However, “with the ever-changing nature of the IT industry, folks really need to be committed to continuing to maintain and develop their skills.”

This requires both short- and long-term investment, he said.

The entrance of new IT industry players may also benefit the state’s industry as whole, Stratton said.

Grand Rapids will soon be home to a world-class IT database center courtesy of Switch, a Nevada based data-management company operating on a global scale, he said.

“That will bring several hundred new IT jobs and thus a new pool of talent. If people see the area grow, it will bring new people and bring back people who left,” Stratton said.

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