State leaders, from the education community to the Legislature and governor, recognize that our workforce faces a significant skill and preparedness gap when it comes to proficiency in the fields of information technology. While there are multiple public and private organizations working to address these needs, I think most would agree that solutions aren’t being implemented quickly enough or in a comprehensive fashion across the state.
The demand for technology skills continues to grow rapidly across the nation and world. In acknowledgement of this fact, Microsoft, along with a number of other companies, recently announced a commitment of more than $300 million to help bring computer science into America’s mainstream education curriculum.
Microsoft recognizes West Virginia’s need for a better tech-trained workforce and has partnered with state high schools to provide training opportunities to students and adults through its Imagine Academy program.
Microsoft Imagine Academy provides up-to-date curricula and resources to train and certify students and educators on Microsoft and other industry-related products and technologies. Students gain valuable skills for college and careers that will help them succeed in the increasingly digital global economy. The curriculum focuses on four areas: Computer science, IT infrastructure, data analytics and productivity.
Student response has been overwhelming! In the past three years, over 10,000 industry-recognized technology certifications have been earned by West Virginia high school students. These certifications were granted after a rigorous exam. Many of the certifications were in Microsoft Office productivity programs, like Microsoft Excel. (As an aside, there are currently over 1,400 West Virginia jobs posted on Indeed.com listing Microsoft Excel as a required skill for employment.) And, more than 400 certifications have been earned by state teachers, who also have access to the program.
Eric Dillon, a rising junior at Mingo Central High School, was recently awarded a $1,500 scholarship for placing second at the National Microsoft Office Specialist Competition in Orlando, Florida. Not only has he secured industry-recognized technology certificates, but he has demonstrated tremendous aptitude for being workforce ready.
Imagine Academy courses are not solely Microsoft-centric. A variety of classes are offered, including: Creative coding, Python, Java, cybersecurity and techno-entrepreneurism. In fact, Python was identified as the “fastest-growing major programming language in high-income countries” by www.StackOverflow.com, the largest on-line community for IT developers.
The technology skills gained from these courses can lead to lucrative careers as software engineers, programmers or data scientists, as well as provide the basic, foundational computing skills necessary for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
While the program is having success, there is so much more that can be done in West Virginia. Greater opportunities can be created if the state expanded the Imagine Academy curriculum to middle schoolers. By offering technology training at an earlier age, our youth would be much better positioned to take advantage of the tech economy. And, companies that need these skill sets would be much more likely to base operations in the state. More education leads to a better trained workforce, which can translate to a greater degree of entrepreneurism and economic opportunity.
The Imagine Academy program was not just developed for middle and high school students, however. In some states, it is accessible to anyone seeking to increase their skills and have the certifications to prove it.
Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington is the only community and technical college offering Imagine Academy courses to adults seeking industry-recognized certificates in technology. This is great news for employers in Cabell County in need of a workforce with advanced technology skills, like local financial technology company Core10. However, adults in the state’s fifty-four other counties need access, as well.
Other states are making Imagine Academy training available to adults in easily accessible settings. This self-paced program can be offered in local libraries, workforce/job retraining offices and public schools after-hours.
West Virginia’s economy cannot afford to wait for private employers to train the employees needed for the burgeoning demand for technology-skilled workforce. www.BusinessInsider.com listed varying data and computer operations careers as seven of the top ten jobs for 2017.
Microsoft, as just one example, has hundreds of high-paying jobs it cannot fill due to a lack of technology-savvy job seekers. And, jobs like these can be performed anywhere, not just in Silicon Valley.
The state and its citizens would benefit greatly from engaging in a more comprehensive public-private partnership that trains youth and adults in these increasingly critical 21st century skill sets. Microsoft is eager to help.