Two simple words can help regional tech diversify its workforce | ORR

  • Thursday, November 2, 2017 3:30pm
  • Opinion

Two breathtakingly simple words can help regional tech grow and diversify its workforce: community college.

At the time of writing, a whopping 26 out of 34 community and technical colleges in Washington state offer bachelor of applied science degrees targeting high-growth occupations in need of more qualified college graduates.

The goal? Implement degree programs that meet workforce needs in local communities and help Washington achieve its ambitious goal of increasing the overall number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to 42,400 per year.

Applied baccalaureate programs, as I often tell prospective students, offer the best of both worlds at a fraction of the cost, blending general education courses with advanced technical training to produce well-rounded, job-ready graduates.

Small class sizes, flexible day, evening, and online schedules, and hands-on learning opportunities are key benefits to earning a four-year degree at a community college.

And of course, there’s affordable tuition. Take Green River College. Students can earn a bachelor’s degree in software development at up to half the cost of a state university. What is more, those that qualify for federal financial aid – the majority of students in our program – can graduate with little to no student loan debt.

Community colleges like Green River that offer application and software development-focused baccalaureate programs are also banding together to develop industry partnerships and common curriculum in order to better meet area demand for tech talent.

One such example of this kind of coalition-building is AppConnect NW. This new consortium is funded by the National Science Foundation and consists of five community and technical colleges in the Puget Sound including Lake Washington Institute of Technology, Bellevue College, North Seattle College, Renton Technical College, and Green River College.

Exciting work like this is happening right here in regional tech’s proverbial backyard. If there is a bleeding edge of innovation in higher education, community colleges offering low-cost four-year degrees leading to high-demand software jobs is it.

Which brings us back to our two-simple-words thesis.

Community colleges not only offer four-year degrees. They’re also magnets for diversity, serving the very same students corporate diversity initiatives are aimed at. This, in turn, presents a golden opportunity for the tech industry to put its money where its mouth is.

After all, there are endless ways to partner with local community colleges. I submit three.

First, direct investment. I can think of several well-known tech companies in Seattle that have recently donated tens of millions of dollars to help diversify computer science. An investment one tenth or even 1/100 this size would dramatically impact a community college’s ability to recruit, retain and graduate more students. We’re talking new computer labs. More scholarships. Endowed faculty positions that close the public-private pay gap to help us attract tech teaching talent. The list goes on.

Second, make a point to hire more students from the community college space. Some hiring systems privilege students from a handful of prestigious universities, and in this sense, may be contributing to the “pipeline problem” that is often used to explain the lack of qualified workers – a kind of self-referential causality. There are currently around 50 software development students at Green River in their junior year applying for summer 2018 technical internships. That’s just a sample from one college.

Third, incentivize employees to mentor a student, guest lecture, teach a class, or join a curriculum advisory committee. Green River graduate and systems engineer Brandon Degarimore, for example, is volunteering in our software development program this year as a capstone consultant and a guest speaker. His employer, BECU, not only encourages this but also allocates work hours that he can donate. Let’s have more of this.

Community college. Two breathtakingly simple words. We’re here and ready to partner. Regional tech: help us deliver the amazing work we’re already doing to further expand the talent pipeline. We can do this. Together.

Andy Orr is a program manager at Green River College (greenriver.edu/software). Reach him at aorr@greenriver.edu.

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