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The I.T. factor

New educational enterprise looks to shrink the IT skills gap

Jobs in IT and tech support remain unfilled because of a shortage of trained professionals, but a new enterprise headed by CodeSmart’s Mark Meyer aims to change that within the South Sound.

Jobs in IT and tech support remain unfilled because of a shortage of trained professionals, but a new enterprise headed by CodeSmart’s Mark Meyer aims to change that within the South Sound.

Business Examiner Media file photo

Mark Meyer has been paying attention to the skilled workforce gap for years. Well, a particular skilled workforce gap, anyway. 

As CEO of CodeSmart, a software consulting firm based in Lacey, he’s seen the shortage of trained IT professionals firsthand. In the past four years, he estimates there’s been an average of 20,000 IT-related job openings in the Puget Sound market alone. And while universities continue to churn out grads eager to pursue jobs in coding, gaming and other software development, the technical support field remains comparatively underfed.

Last year, Meyer decided to help feed it. The result is Olympia University of Business and Technology, a non-profit organization that provides training and mentoring for people who want to enter the IT field. 

“It’s no secret that, if you have good tech skills, it’s easy to find a job,” says Meyer. “My customers are struggling to find tech talent, and my business partner and I realized that we could have an impact by creating courses that teach those skills.” 

The initial program, which Meyer introduced with an announcement last month, lasts for three to four months and includes a combination of classroom study and hands-on experience. 

“It’s all designed around getting the students an industry certification,” says Meyer. “The infrastructure people are certified by Cisco, the people by Microsoft, and the Java people by Oracle.” 

Once students have completed their training and certification, he places them into internships with either local clients or his own company. 

“Right now, I have more openings than students, so it’s safe to say that every student will get an internship.” 

The program has brought several surprises. When Meyer casually mentioned the idea during an employee meeting at Code Smart, four of his staff immediately approached him and offered to teach classes. 

“They wanted to give back by sharing what they’d learned and how they got into the business,” he says. “I didn’t expect that.” 

His expectations were also confounded by the students themselves. Meyer anticipated most would be in their 20s, having dropped out of college or entered the workforce in a different field. And while some fit that profile, many are in their 30s, have military backgrounds, and/or are female. 

“The demographic shifted from who we thought we’d get,” he says. “It’s quite diverse.” 

Each of his instructors gets a bonus, but because they all have day jobs, classes take place on weekends or evenings. 

“We’ve learned along the way,” says Meyer. “We were trying to do one class in four hours on a Saturday, but we had to extend it. The students were very willing. I let the instructors figure out what hours are going to work best. 

The first six students began classes in Olympia last February and are currently set to begin internships. Another cohort began in May in Bellevue, a third will start in Olympia this month and yet another in Tacoma later this year. 

“My goal is to get 100 students through the program this year,” says Meyer. “Next year, the goal is 200.” 

CodeSmart’s clients are eager to accept the first batch of interns. 

“They’re really excited,” Meyer shares. “Everyone from state agencies to both private and public organization are keenly interested in our interns.” 

Part of the reason is that all mentoring responsibilities will fall to the teachers and Code Smart staff, rather than the company providing the internship. 

“In some cases, having an intern can slow down your business, if you have to manage all of that,” he says. “Teams from my other companies will mentor the interns so all the businesses have to do is take attendance. They see the potential for new employees as well.” 

And because the program is nonprofit, there are no placement fees for employers. 

Students are also anticipating new opportunities, although initially some believed the program was too good to be true. As one woman was signing up, she asked Meyer, “How much is this going to cost me?” 

When he replied that it was free, she eyed him dubiously. 

“What’s the catch?” she wondered aloud. He explained how his company would benefit from the program. 

“I’ve got first rights to place you as an intern with the company of my choice and first rights to hire you,” he told her. 

Despite that claim, he knows some of his students will end up elsewhere. 

“I have a lot of customers who are waiting for this first class and I’m pretty sure that some companies will hire them away from me. But I’ll have so many that I won’t mind.”

Meyer plans to continue adding classes and expanding the skills that students can learn, including cloud-based computing. 

“If you’re not interested in being a software developer, we’ll have more hands-on training in infrastructure,” he says. “We’re also opening up geographically.” 

The Bellevue class came about because Meyer owns a facility there, and Tacoma will happen through a collaboration with Tacoma Community House, another nonprofit organization that hosts activities and courses. However, Meyer also has connections to facilities in Detroit, Houston, and Virginia among other places, so the growth may not be limited to Puget Sound. 

He believes the model will be replicated once other businesses see its potential. 

“Other avenues of training will look at my process and methodology, and realize that I’m filling a gap in a unique way,” he says. “You have online schools that provide technical training, but they don’t help you get a certification or proactively work with you to secure an internship. By the time a student finishes this program, they’ll have training, certification and job experience. That makes them a very good candidate for an IT job.”