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Missoula tech program looks to train data scientists to fill workforce shortage

Devin Holmes, right, founder of Big Sky Code Academy, has expanded the school’s program offerings to data science. (Missoula Current)

The good news is, entry-level data analysts in Montana make around $55,000 a year. The bad news is, there aren’t enough of them to go around.

A Missoula-based coding school plans to launch a new boot camp for aspiring data scientists this fall, adding to its growing list of courses aimed at preparing workers for emerging fields in the state’s technology sector.

Devin Holmes, founder of Big Sky Code Academy and chairman of the workforce development committee at the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, said data scientists are in high demand.

“As the chair of that committee with the chamber, I have a pulse on what employers are saying, which helps me as a company determine what we can do to better serve the community,” said Holmes. “Data science is one of the fastest growing fields that involves technology and data, and we felt it was a good complement to the course offerings in Montana.”

While the University of Montana offers a one-year master’s program in the field, Holmes said the Big Sky Code Academy’s new data science program serves more as a boot camp, one that’s not intended to compete with the university.

Rather, full-time students can complete the academy’s online program in 24 weeks while part-time students can finish in 32 weeks. The course is offered in one or two parts, Holmes said, and students can go on to UM for a master’s degree if desired.

“The first part our program is focused on someone on the business side of analytics, someone trying to glean valuable insights from big chunks of data,” said Holmes. “The second part of the course is far more technical. It involves a lot of the actual programming language to write the programs that can mine the big chunks of data.”

According to Indeed.com, the average salary for entry-level data analysts in Montana stands at $55,000 compared to $60,000 nationally. For data scientists, the average Montana salary is $95,000 while the national average sits at $114,000.

Holmes said several Montana companies, including Allegiance Benefit Plan Management, Advanced Technology Group and EDULOG – all based in Missoula – are hiring professionals trained as data analysts or data scientists.

“We sent our curriculum out to multiple employers in Montana and we’ve seen greater interest in developing this level of talent and this skill set than we have with web development,” Holmes said. “It’s indicative of a need.”

Recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that by 2018, the U.S. could need as many as 190,000 workers skilled in deep analytics. It may also need 1.5 million managers and analysts capable of mining big data to make effective business decisions.

Holmes said that need has already found its way to Montana, prompting the Big Sky Code Academy to expand its offerings to the subject. The school, launched less that two years ago, now offers programming to a variety of ages and across a number of technical fields, including coding.

“We now have students all over the country – that’s the reason we moved the course online,” said Holmes. “Of our out-of-state students, I would say more than three-fourths have a relationship with Montana. There’s this sense they want to take the course from a Montana company, and our hope is we can pull them back to Montana because they learned with us.”