The numbers are clear: South Carolina has a supply-and-demand problem in the field of information technology.
A study commissioned by Columbia nonprofit technology collaboration It-oLogy found that in the fourth quarter of 2016, the state’s IT sector had 6,424 open jobs. Of the 500 employers surveyed, 91% reported one to five open positions that take up to six months to fill, and 57% reported plans to increase their number of IT positions within the next five years.
“In 2015, we graduated a little over 500 computer science graduates. That shows you the huge gaps that are there,” said Tammy Mainwaring, president and COO of It-oLogy. “It’s not even coming close to meeting the demand.”
The reasons vary, from misconceptions about what a career in IT entails to an inability to attract qualified candidates, especially women and minorities, to a flexible field that pays well above the state average, Mainwaring said.
“Not a lot of students are even going into IT or showing interest in high school,” she said. “They really don’t think IT is a cool career for them, so we need to change that message. You have to grab them early, and give them that confidence.”
It-oLogy has several outreach programs aimed at doing just that, including its Innovation Challenge, a statewide competition for students in grades 3-12, and the Aspirations in Computing awards, which recognize high-school girls with tech skills. Once a month, Cyber Saturdays let elementary and high school students experience hands-on cyber projects such as wearable technology that appeal to kids’ creative skills or their problem-solving instincts.
“They could possibly come up with something that could change the world or cure an illness,” Mainwaring said. “We’ve seen kids that have someone in their family that has an illness or a problem, and they want to develop a solution to correct that.”
It-oLogy also offers professional development to teachers and educators and emphasizes the need for apprenticeships and internships, provided through organizations such as Apprenticeship Carolina, to produce the experienced job candidates employers are seeking.
But employers also have to make efforts, Mainwaring said, from tweaking their recruitment process to being open to a more modern work space.
“Some places have rows and rows of cubes,” said Mainwaring, who has an entire wall in her office made up of a whiteboard filled with scribbled inspiration. "The new generation, they consider live, work, play all together. Adapt the workforce environment so it’s more collaborative and there can be creativity.”
While committed to reaching would-be technological workers early, It-oLogy also has strategies to more immediately address the workforce shortage. The company, in partnership with Furman University, is sponsoring several career development workshops beginning in January to address the lack of “soft” interpersonal skills surveyed employers identified as a challenge.
“Employers said, well, we can bring someone in that’s got great communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills. We can train them in the technology,” Mainwaring said. “But the opposite – if they can come in with the tech skills, but they don’t have soft skills like resolving conflict, leading a team, just simple communication, interfacing with a customer – then they’re not going to last very long in the workforce.”
It-oLogy also plans to begin offering 24-week, fast-track courses focusing on front-end web development, networking and tech support to provide non-traditional paths into IT to help students who may not be interested in or have access to a four-year or technical college education.
While more workers in the IT sector are obviously needed – and soon – the benefits to an IT career are also clear. The average tech wage in South Carolina is $76,589, according to data from the survey, conducted by Charlotte-based business consulting firm Multiple Choice Inc. The annual mean wage in the state in 2016 was $41,530, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
IT jobs can also have flexible, remote schedules, which may well appeal to working mothers, Mainwaring said.
“People see technology or IT and they think a computer programmer sitting in front of a computer all day, and that’s just not the case,” she said. “IT is so many things and so many fields.
“We need to get the word out.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 23, 2017, print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.