Preparing America's talent for digital media

**As published in RCR Wireless News** To say America’s labor force is going through hard times would be an understatement. With unemployment rates in many states near or below levels unseen since World War II, it’s almost impossible to find anyone who hasn’t been affected by America’s latest economic malaise. You know things are especially bad when state and federal agencies are trumpeting the latest batch of unemployment statistics simply because fewer jobs were lost in that month-long period than was expected. Never mind adding to the total number of jobs – the only positive to cling to these days is the size of that negative tally each month. For now, smaller numbers are a good thing. Only after the bleeding stops can we begin to turn momentum in the other direction.

Unmet demand for developers The good news for the wireless media space is that there continues to be plenty of unmet demand for developers. The latest job outlook report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that computer software engineers are poised to be among one of the fastest-growing occupations. The field is expected to add some of the most new jobs over the decade stretching from 2008-2018. The data, which was last revised in mid-December, projects the computer software engineer workforce to grow by 32%, adding 295,200 new jobs during that period. Moreover, computer software engineers in applications are expected to see job growth of 34%, adding 175,100 jobs by 2018. Combined, both groups stand to reach a total workforce of nearly 1.9 million if the government’s projections stand true. It’s not a bad living either, by any stretch. In 2008, the last time the agency compiled data, the average annual salary for a computer applications software engineer was $85,430. There are plenty of forces stymieing all that optimism though and there are no quick fixes to be had. Much to the chagrin of software and application publishers, the number of qualified candidates for these jobs is still far short of meeting their demand. Not only is the pool of qualified developers way too shallow, but there continues to be frustration with the level of talent coming out of our high schools, trade schools and universities. Colleges have become rather efficient at training world-renowned computer scientists, but they’ve yet to convert that success on any large scale with developer talent. Indeed, just like most other industries that could be grouped under the umbrella of technology have experienced this vacuum, America’s education system has failed to produce what these companies need on any scale. Even with top executives pleading their case regularly, the federal government has been reluctant to expand the number of international visas allowed for these jobs. The workforce-education chasm A great chasm exists between what employers in this space need and what many schools are doing to prepare graduates for the immense opportunity. And so it begs the question: If unemployment is so high, why isn’t more being done? Perhaps more importantly though: How much of a dent could be made in the total unemployment numbers if these jobs could all be filled with highly trained developers from within our borders? These questions and others are exactly what Tony Schum, economic development director at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, wrestles with on a regular basis. On the education and training side of the equation, it’s difficult to see any major shifts happening quickly, he told RCR Wireless News. “We don’t have the ability to ramp up highly specialized workforces to meet that demand quickly,” he said. Schools at every level across the country are adding degrees and certificates in digital media and software programming to their curriculum, but the workforce-talent pipeline still looks more like bottleneck than a flourishing ecosystem. The typically slow pace of change within academia, particularly when it comes to curriculum, is only compounding the problem. Needless to say, companies that produce digital media don’t work under the same restrictions. Academia isn’t always interested in change and yet change is the name of the game in the developer community. Innovation should not be hampered so much by traditional lines of thinking, especially in an industry that’s anything but stuck in its ways. Still, Schum and others like him who focus on regional economic development believe universities and trade schools offer the best chance of filling these vacuums. Austin clamors for talent and growth Over the past five years, more than 140 companies chose to relocate from other parts of the country to the Austin area (the vast majority coming from the West Coast) and it’s not just the lower cost of living and tax structure that attracted them. While the region is proud to have landed so many firms from elsewhere, Schum and his colleagues still put a greater emphasis on driving growth at companies that are already based there. The general rule in economic development is that 80% of all new jobs created over the next 20 years will come from companies that already exist within your community. “The best thing that we can possible do is get people that are moving here jobs,” he said. To help meet that goal, the chamber is working with businesses, government and non-governmental organizations to educate and re-train people for careers in digital media. Convergence industries Not surprisingly, the area of most interest is what’s referred to as “convergence industries.” The convergence space between wireless platforms and digital media entertainment is of especially high interest in Austin, just as it is in every technology hub. Interactive software development and gaming is the most active throughout the region. The gaming industry alone now comprises a workforce of nearly 3,000 in the Austin area and all signs point toward that number growing substantially over the next decade and beyond. Narrowing the gap Aiming to fill the pockets of vacuum-like states that plague software engineering in particular, more work needs to be done on a market-by-market level. Solving that requires the direct involvement of many players. Improving digital media training, attracting talent and convincing industries and major employers that their highly specialized jobs can be filled should be a high priority for any region that wants to add high-paying and rewarding jobs to their community. The apps revolution taking hold in the wireless space is compounding that opportunity at a rapid clip. It would be fair to point out that mobile application development has been gaining traction for years, but it didn’t reach the feverish point it’s at today until Apple stepped up with the launch of its App Store in July 2008. Since then, the competition among publishers and startups for quality talent has clicked into hyper mode, leaving even more unmet demand in its wake. Schools, businesses, regional economic development agencies and technology groups will have to collaborate more and press the case for growth if there’s to be any hope for narrowing the gap between need and want in the digital media workforce.