Some conversations at the 10th Future Ready Iowa Summit, held on Sept. 16, dialed in on the T in STEM. One breakout session had a panel discuss what employers need from K-12 schools to recruit and retain their technology workforces.
Tyler Wyngarden, vice president of development at the Technology Association of Iowa, sat on the panel and stated the challenge already known and faced by all industries at the moment: The number of jobs exceeds the number of workers.
“Perhaps one of the [solutions] here is we need to make more people,” Wyngarden said. “But joking aside, the world has become flat, especially in the last 18 months.”
Even before the pandemic, roles in and surrounding technology were increasingly available regardless of industry, but as several panelists said, that’s not the common perception.
“There’s a conception that computer programming or a career in technology is ‘I’m going to be in a basement crunching out code.’ Certainly there are those jobs and you can take that job … if that’s what you want. But it is so much more than that, everywhere from the marketing side, the data and the analytics side, the creative business side,” Wyngarden said.
Panelists all supported demystifying what a career in technology looks like and who works in those careers, something Samantha Dahlby strives to do as director of K-12 education at NewBoCo in Cedar Rapids.
Dahlby, who also spoke on a panel at last week’s event, hit on another theme from the summit of introducing concepts to students as early as elementary school to help generate interest and show the different ways they can use technology.
NewBoCo’s programming for elementary school students aims to “provide a safe space for them to explore and just have fun doing activities,” Dahlby said.
Offering an early introduction to the field also gets a message to students earlier that they are capable of a career in technology.
“I think now is the time to start to really encourage these younger kids [and say], ‘You can have a career in this, and I think you could be very successful,’” Wyngarden said in an interview with the Business Record. “It never hurts. Everybody likes to be told that they have value and skills.”
Computer science is the focus of NewBoCo’s education initiatives, but the organization also has partnerships through which students can see how technology is integrated into science and health care careers. Dahlby said that kind of exposure is valuable, as school subjects are traditionally siloed and appear disparate rather than interconnected.
“The English studies are over here, and the math is over here and science is also separate,” she said. “All of those [subjects] are kind of pulled out; there are different teachers and different times dedicated to them, so that gives the perception that all of these things are separate and they don’t necessarily go together.”
By “cross-pollinating” concepts from different fields in computer science education programs, Dahlby said students can discover careers that fit their passions and skill sets better than the traditional conceptions of technology jobs.
For companies adapting to the current gaps in their workforces, Wyngarden said there is a similar concept emerging of companies cross-training existing employees to fill open technology roles. Oftentimes, in six months to a year, an employee who already knows the company’s processes can be prepared to step into a new role.
On the other hand, Wyngarden said companies should also rethink recruitment strategies and ensure they’re intentionally reaching out to potential candidates.
He said some companies in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas are going through NewBoCo to connect with students completing coding programs. Even when students are in middle or high school, companies can introduce themselves and make students aware of their business.
Additionally, the rise of hybrid and work-from-home models presents both an opportunity and a danger in terms of hiring, Wyngarden said, as Iowa tech workers could choose to work remotely for an out-of-state company, but local companies could also recruit from other states.
For these reasons, another resounding theme on the tech workforce panel was to bridge disconnects between education and businesses and build up partnerships.
“Industry doesn’t know what to do with education, and education doesn’t know what to ask the industry … so the first step is to reach out to someone, anyone,” Dahlby said.
Wyngarden echoed support for reaching out on the panel, telling the education professionals in the audience that every company has its “technology person” who will be their starting point to build out a partnership.
With high school enrollment in technology courses down 21% between 2011-12 and 2019-20, according to the Iowa STEM Evaluation Report, simply more exposure to what a technology career can be through classroom or work site visits “makes a difference,” Wyngarden said.
Students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from industry partnerships. Teachers need their support as well to help students find their paths.
Dahlby said there is a growing challenge in education as more teachers retire, and that is one reason why NewBoCo provides professional development for local school districts. Through teacher externships, educators pair with industry employees and gain industry knowledge firsthand, which they can take and integrate into their teaching.
The next stride for STEM education in Iowa is the requirement for all schools to offer computer science curriculum by 2024. Dahlby said in the long term Iowa will be able to evaluate this action’s impact on the workforce when those students start to graduate.
The needs of the technology workforce will keep evolving, just as technology itself does, Wyngarden said, and Iowa has done a good job of evolving with it, but it needs to continue.
He said Iowa can keep up by redefining what a technology job is and ensuring that students see themselves represented in the workforce.
“I think reframing that narrative [that] health care workers are technology professionals, agricultural and farmer workers are technology professionals, and certainly manufacturing workers are technology professionals, I think if we can tell that story a little bit more, that helps us because then instead of saying technology is just a specific industry, we’re saying technology is a through line that goes through all the industries,” he said.