Changing the game for IT talent development in Michigan

By Amy Elliott Bragg|

Fill in the blank: The future of Southeast Michigan is _________.

There are dozens of good answers. Energy super-efficient vehicles. Water technology. Life sciences and biotech. Clean energy, green building, and sustainable enterprise.
You could even make a compelling case for the IT industry. After all, every other sector — established and emerging, from goliath manufacturers to David-like start-ups — relies on IT. There’s an intense real-time demand for IT, and in the long-term it’s an industry that will continue to grow.
And so far, it’s taking hold here. You’ve no doubt read a few splashy news hits heralding Detroit as the next Silicon Valley, its long-empty high-rises filling up with geeky new businesses. Growth in demand for IT talent in Detroit is outpacing most of the best-known IT hubs in the country. (Read more about the state of IT jobs in Detroit in our Data Spotlight.)
That fact alone may reveal what’s in store for Southeast Michigan. But it won’t be a specific industry, nor a single cluster of powerful companies, that turns our region around.
The future of Southeast Michigan is talent. And this is the story of the regional partnerships, programs, and initiatives that are changing the face of talent development in Michigan — in IT, and across the board.
The big shift
GalaxE.Solutions had a problem.
Things had changed since they had first laid out their training needs for their Shifting Code cohort, a new IT training program for Southeast Michigan. A pressing project, requiring a totally different set of technology skills, had surfaced. The entire 12-week curriculum would need to be reshaped. In most circumstances, identifying a new training need just a week before launch would have derailed the entire project. But not this time, because Shifting Code is different from most training programs.
First, it’s based on employer needs; you can go to the library today and pick up Drupal for Dummies, but how do you know if what you’re learning, or the way you’re learning it, has any value in the marketplace? Shifting Code is designed to respond to the needs of local employers and give workers skills that are uniquely in-demand.
Second, even from Detroit to Ann Arbor, the program is different. Shifting Code’s first cohort of 26 students just graduated from a Drupal program designed and implemented by Ann Arbor SPARK with input from 20 local companies. The next, Detroit-based cohort, in partnership with Wayne County Community College District, the Detroit Workforce Development Department and a coalition of Detroit IT employers, including GalaxE, had initially intended to train in Java.
Third, Shifting Code is based on real-world projects. Pick up a textbook and you start from ground zero: line one of the code. In the real world, you might pick up at line 8,000 of an incomplete project, and your employer will need you to be responsive, flexible, solution-minded and, of course, skilled enough to face the challenge.
That’s why GalaxE had to change course — a real-world project needed skilled attention from employers trained in Javascript, not Java.
“Within one week, WIN completely changed the curriculum to address our needs,” says Ryan Hoyle, GalaxE’s Director of Global Recruiting. In this case, WIN refers to the Workforce Intelligence Network, a Southeast Michigan partnership of Michigan Works! Agencies and Community Colleges that is working to better align to meet employers’ real-time talent needs.”[This experience] highlights WIN’s ability to solicit feedback from its customers and it speaks highly of Wayne County Community College, how flexible and adaptable they are to partnering with businesses.
“To make a shift like that with five days’ notice, that’s really unheard of,” Hoyle says.
Tech companies like GalaxE are coming to Michigan specifically because of the talent pool. But the pace of change in IT is outrageously fast, and demand for IT workers is urgent across the country, so employers need support from education and training partners, governmental agencies, and others to meet their needs.
Seeking that support can be painful. Local training partners may compete with each other; government agencies can be slow, or may struggle to communicate across agencies.
That’s what WIN is trying to fix with programs like Shifting Code.
“That’s the power of WIN and why it’s so important,” says Sharon Miller, WIN co-chair and Vice Chancellor of External Affairs for Oakland Community College. “It represents a huge shift in our ability to collaborate, [and] Shifting Code is just one more example of how we can partner effectively.”
In Oakland County, an H1B grant for workforce training allowed Automation Alley and OCC to partner on providing a custom training program for HP Enterprise Services.
HP Enterprise Services located a new application delivery center in Pontiac last September because of SE Michigan’s talent pool, the low cost of living, the quality and variety of educational institutions, and government support, says Jane Montecillo, Director of US Public Sector Service Delivery and Quality for HP. Over the next several years, HP plans to hire at least 200 IT workers in Michigan — which means they’ll need skills training, especially for code developers, software testers and data engineers.
“We have a commitment in Michigan, [and] we’re very focused on talent,” Montecillo says.
HP’s Shifting Code cohort will kick off in July, at OCC’s Auburn Hills campus. Montecillo says the partnership is precisely what’s needed for Michigan’s IT industry and the broader economy.
“This is exactly what needs to be done, not just in Michigan, but throughout the U.S. — building partnerships between the schools, the business sector, and the government to address the big talent gap we have today.”
The program, Montecillo says, is a win-win-win situation.
“These programs are going to create opportunities for people here in Michigan to enter into the IT field. From an employer standpoint, it will help us by providing better candidates. … And the end result is providing HP’s clients really outstanding services.”
Cooperation, even among competitors 
While the success of Shifting Code will ultimately be measured by job placements, it’s also designed to serve as a model for building better relationships between employers, community colleges and Michigan talent, says Jonathan Younkman, WIN Talent Partner, of the MEDC.
“Shifting Code is a tool that we’re pulling down from the state and using to help develop the pipeline,” Younkman says. “Even if Shifting Code disappeared tomorrow, those relationships have been established. We’re trying to use whatever resources we have available to us to develop that direct pipeline between the community colleges and the IT sector in the region.”
WIN’s IT talent development programs are helping to develop other relationships, too. The result? Regional capacity-building on a big, cooperative scale. Think Compuware, GalaxE.Solutions, Quicken Loans and Marketing Associates — all competitors for top IT talent in downtown Detroit — teaming up for an initiative they’re calling “IT in the D.”
They’re the same four companies that joined forces for Shifting Code in Detroit. Now they want to take it to the next level.
“There is a nationwide shortage of good talent in IT,” says Ryan Hoyle. “We came together and decided that we, as a region, would benefit by companies collaborating and demonstrating to the nation that you can have a successful IT career right here in Detroit. And a career means that you have more than one opportunity with one company. … I don’t think you’ll go to New York, LA or New Jersey and find companies setting aside competition and cooperating with each other to address a greater need.”
In the same spirit, WIN and its partners are working on ways to help create an identity for Southeast Mochigan’s IT industry.
“We’re trying to create a unified voice” to attract both IT businesses and IT talent to the region, Younkman says. “There’s a misconception of job density, an idea that there aren’t enough IT jobs in Michigan, that all of the jobs here are automotive.”
The approach is still under development, but in the end, it hopes to reverse wrong ideas about Michigan’s economy and support the development of a vibrant, creative, and dense local scene for IT firms of all stripes and sizes.
“It shouldn’t matter if you have a Compuware badge around your neck,” Younkman says. “You’re one more IT person here, walking around, creating the vibrancy we need, you’re having coffee with some other company’s guy and he’s giving you ideas, and that creates a creative environment.”
And if we can leverage cooperative partnerships to improve the IT talent pool in Michigan and create a more innovative environment — what can’t we do?
Learn more about the Shifting Code program here.Photo by Matt Lavaute via Flickr. Used with permission.

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