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Filling technology’s massive talent gap

by Raoul Dennis

Technology partnership brings opportunities to students at Virginia HBCUs

In an unprecedented effort to answer the demand for skilled labor
in Virginia’s booming technology industry, entrepreneur Mark Warner has
established a partnership between the state, the area’s technology
companies, and the commonwealth’s Historically Black Colleges and
Universities (HBCUs). The partnership aims to give underserved African
American students the educational and experiential foundation they need
to take advantage of the high-tech job opportunities currently
available in the region.

The Virginia High Tech Partnership program was initiated this past
February with twenty-five students from the five Virginia HBCUs. It is
being run by the Collis-Warner Foundation, a family-owned philanthropic
organization formed by Warner and his wife, Lisa Collins.

“In the growth of the Virginia economy, 63 percent is due to
technology-related fields,” says Jim Dyke, former Virginia Secretary of
Education and partner with law firm McGuire, Woods, Battle &
Boothe. Since 1995, nearly 300 companies have announced that they will
build or expand facilities within the Virginia commonwealth, bringing
with them $6 billion dollars and 30,000 new jobs. There were more jobs
secured in the first seven months of 1998 than in all of 1997,
generating $1.5 billion in capital investments and 28,000 new jobs.

A glaring feature of the high-tech boom that is currently taking
place in Virginia, however, is its notable lack of African American
participants.

African Americans are under-represented in the technology industry
nationwide. According to a task-force report from the National
Information Technology Workforce Convocation, only 6 percent of the
professionals in the information technology arena are Black.

“The shortage of skilled technology workers threatens our economy,” Warner said in an early press release.

In an effort to remedy the problem, this past summer, seventeen
technology companies provided internships for computer science majors
from Norfolk State University, Hampton University, Virginia State
University, Virginia Union University, and St. Paul’s College.

The partnership has motivated companies such as TROY Systems, EDS,
Landmark Systems, KPMG Peat Marwick, American Type Culture Collection,
Comdial, and SAIC to begin long-term relationships with the HBCUs (see
below for a list of participants).

How The Partnership Works

The Virginia High Tech Partnership has three components aimed at
helping fill the 19,000 open positions in the Virginia technology job
market. The first is an internship program that allows students to gain
experience and income with area companies. The second component is a
job placement program for graduating seniors. The final element
consists of developing long-standing partnerships between HBCUs and
Virginia-based technology companies.

Sheena Crittendon, a spokesperson for St. Paul’s College, says the
partnership offers her school and its science majors unlimited
opportunities.

“We are a small, private college, so funds for our programs are
limited,” Crittendon says. “Although this isn’t a contractual
agreement, it’s already working for everyone. … It will inspire other
companies to participate.”

Two of St. Paul’s interns who participated in the program were made
offers by their host companies with starting salaries of $45,000.

“There is an idea to forge relationships that will bring in people
and resources,” says Dr. Margaret Daniels-Tyler, executive assistant to
the president at Norfolk State University.

For NSU the partnership has arisen at a perfect time. The
university has an internationally recognized materials research
department and is in the process of finalizing a contract with Coherent
Laser Group, to serve as a data testing site for a laser technology
program.

“We want to establish collaborative research efforts between NSU
and the companies involved,” Daniels-Tyler says. “We would like to see
some of the hightech faculty professionals come to NSU and lecture. We
also want to develop programs wherein our professors go to the company
and learn the cutting edge of the technology so that we can develop
better curriculum.”

NSU and participating HBCUs also hope to develop joint research
projects, joint investment hardware and software efforts, and mentoring
programs.

Kudos for the Concept

Warner’s position within Virginia’s business sector and on the
board of Virginia Union University gave him the original incentive to
connect the HBCU and technology communities. The project is already
being lauded by area officials as a development of historic proportions
for twenty-first-century Virginia and the information age.

“It’s a fantastic concept, especially as it relates to the fact
that there’s a dearth of women and minorities in this industry,”
explains Dyke. “As far as the Virginia economy is concerned, this is
the wave of the future. I commend Mark on his vision for an effort like
this.”

“I have been highly impressed with this partnership,” says Ben
Ellis, director of admissions at Norfolk State University. “It has
unlimited potential because it works to the advantage of everyone
involved. It helps NSU establish relationships with area companies that
were previously unaware of our computer science programming. It helps
our tech students to identify top opportunities in developing
industries. And it’s great for the state of Virginia in helping us to
compete in a global economy and employ our own.”

“This program is invaluable in assisting HBCUs to have a better
knowledge of the on-the-ground developments of the industry,” says
Bessie Willis, interim director of career counseling and planning at
Hampton University. “It gives our students practical experience to take
back to the classroom.”

The long-term implications of the jobs resulting from the
partnership are expected to be key in closing the industry’s massive
talent gap and creating a globally recognized technology region in
Virginia.

Currently, there are 190,000 software job openings that have not
been filled by U.S. college graduates. By the end of the year, that
number is expected to increase to 350,000. As a result, many companies
are recruiting talent from nation’s such as India and Russia. Unless
the current trend changes, some experts project that by 2005, there
will be 1.5 million tech-based jobs in this country that are not filled
by U.S.-born workers.

“A hundred years ago, if your town wasn’t a stop on the railroad,
you got passed by,” Warner says. “Fifty years ago, if the highway
didn’t have an exit in your town, you got passed by. This is the same
thing. This is an opportunity for Virginia to be more than a regional
leader in the technology industry, but a national and world leader. The
next Bill Gates could come out of Hampton [University] if we give these
students the opportunity.”

A Sliver of Light in the Dark

Patricia Davis, thirty-five, is a senior majoring in computer
science at NSU. Her internship at Landmark Systems Corporation in the
Washington, D.C., suburb of Vienna, Va. as a software developer,
creating programs that analyze the efficiency of a company’s computer
network, was a wonderful experience.

“Landmark is an excellent company that went out of its way to make
sure that I was comfortable and challenged throughout the experience,”
she says. “I felt truly blessed.”

Davis, a wife and mother of three, lives in Norfolk and appreciated
the opportunity to reside at a dormitory on the campus of George Mason
University in Fairfax, Va., so that she could participate in the
program.

“[The partnership] didn’t pay for the room, but they did make the arrangements,” she says.

Jaunese Harris, twenty-one, will graduate from Virginia State
University in January 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in information
systems and decision sciences. She will then go directly into her new
job at EDS.

Single and earning nearly $45,000 to start, Harris intends to put a
portion of her earnings into a new scholarship that she’ll form at VSU
for some future information systems and decision management majors.

Giving back was always Harris’s intent, and her summer internship through the partnership has made it a reality.

“Companies don’t always represent themselves at HBCUs,” Harris
says. “But this program allowed me to get in at a time when other
companies may have been looking the other way and not noticing that
we’re here.”

Joel Itskowitz, director of human resources at TROY Systems, Inc.,
explains the developing relationships with HBCUs as a sliver of light
in the dark.

“It boils down to a question of supply and demand,” Itskowitz says.
“We work with more interns than some larger companies outside the area
because we realize that we are going to have to invest in our own
future.”

TROY offers internships year round to allow for a variety of
student schedules. It hired three of the partnership interns it took on
this summer.

Itskowitz also views this program as one answer toward abating the industry’s continual reliance on foreign talent.

“When companies bring in a lot of talent from overseas, you run the
risk of a talent drain if they get competitive offers to go home or
elsewhere,” he says.

Lisa Townes Jackson, education assistant at VSU’s career planning
and placement office, says the Virginia High Tech Partnership is
gaining the attention HBCUs lacked.

“This program opened up at least fifty new employers’ doors to us
that we wouldn’t have been in touch with otherwise,” she says. “There’s
no limit to what the program can do. If you look at the population of
Virginia and the demographics, the number of Blacks per capita is
pretty big. That’s your employee base. And it makes sense to encourage
people in the area. They know the area, they like it, and you don’t
have to sell them on it.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Virginia’s Technology Partners

American Type Culture Collection Bell Atlantic BTG Incorporated
Columbia Capital Corporation Comdial Dimensions International, Inc.
DynCorp EDS FBR & Co., Inc. ICF Kaiser KPMG Peat Marwick Landmark
Systems McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe New Millennium Studies
Northern Virginia Technology Council P-Com Network Services Potomac
Knowledgeway Project Price Waterhouse/Coopers Ronson Communications
& Information Systems, L.C. SAIC Troy Systems Virginia Center for
Innovative Technologies

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