Missoula tech leaders, UM look to build stronger partnerships as industry grows

University of Montana Provost Jon Harbor, left, and Vice President of Research and Creative Scholarship Scott Whittenburg, right, sit with Christina Henderson, the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, during a round-table discussion with more than a dozen Missoula tech firms. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When more than a dozen business leaders in Missoula’s tech sector sat down with top University of Montana administrators this week to explore a stronger partnership, a common theme emerged.

Amid discussions on scaled internships, enhanced career fairs and training across disciplines, nearly all agreed that collaboration between the flagship institution and Missoula’s tech sector has room to grow.

“By shining a light on these bright spots and success stories, it gives these new administrators at UM stories they can tell as they’re working to grow the university,” said Christina Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance.

“We can also discuss ways to do more, and find opportunities to partner and improve things as a mutual benefit for this (tech) industry and the university,” she said.

Montana’s tech sector has grown nine times faster than the state economy in recent years, and jobs in the industry now pay twice the state’s average wage. Last year, Henderson said, the industry netted a record $1.9 billion in Montana.

But as the tech sector grows, companies in Missoula have struggled with recruiting skilled talent. While several companies enjoy a strong relationship with UM and have amassed a proud list of alumni as a result, others have built no relationship.

“There are a few companies here that are well connected with the university, and a lot of companies that aren’t connected with the university at all,” said Jay Evans, president and CEO of Inimmune Corp. “They would love to have internship programs and access to that talent, and train that talent as a future hire rather than just going out for resumes.”

Inimmune has looked to UM interns and graduates as it works to develop new drug therapies at its Missoula lab. At the same time, Evans said, upstart firms like his can’t often afford to bring in new graduates who have little training or experience.

Evans joined others in urging UM to find ways to develop that talent earlier in a student’s academic career. Students would get a jump on their future, and companies would get an experienced employee.

“It takes two or three years to get them into a corporate culture where they can be really productive and manage people in that environment,” Evans said. “So we start that early at the university, either as an undergraduate or graduate student. The idea is that the best of the best will hopefully want to stay in Missoula.”

Madison Iler, director of advisory services with LMG Security in Missoula, offers feedback during a round-table discussion with University of Montana officials. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Developing that talent could come in many forms, whether it’s connecting with prospects still in high school or creating ways for UM students to work at local firms as part of their education.

Kelly Schwager, vice president of global communications for Oracle, said training across disciplines – and outside the classroom – could be a win-win for students and the business community.

“I was a traditional communications major, and I didn’t get any exposure in my undergraduate programs or graduate program to specific industries,” she said. “It was very core communications. Having these partnerships between departments can really set these students up to be prime for these roles that many of us don’t even know exist. It’s a huge opportunity.”

Laura Marshall, vice president of human resources and community relations with Blackfoot, agreed. She too spoke from personal experience.

“My daughter doesn’t have a clue what she wants to be, and no one is presenting her options,” said Marshall. “It seems to me the university can both recruit and get into these classrooms, and partnerships are a way to expose these students to all these wonderful careers. I think there’s something there.”

Provost Jon Harbor also believes more can be done to share the stories of successful students. As local tech companies pluck UM’s best and brightest graduates, their success could be used to recruit new students with similar interests.

“We have the capacity for a lot more students at the university right now,” said Harbor. “So how do we make the compelling argument for people finishing high school to come to UM? Telling the story of highly successful people who came to the university and got amazing opportunities with your organizations is really going to help us recruit a lot more students here.”

Surveys conducted by the High Tech Business Alliance asked companies what skills and positions were most in demand. Computer science and programming topped the list.

Henderson the state’s tech firms struggle to fill such jobs with local talent, prompting them to recruit workers from outside the state.

“We just can’t get enough of them,” Henderson said. “We’ve spoken up about the need for more computer science programmers, just because we see the demand. A lot of companies tell us they would hire people with those skills and add a lot of jobs.”

Harbor said UM could invest more in such areas of study.

“We are moving toward an allocation model that would put a lot more emphasis on the numbers of students in programs,” he said. “If we’re bringing in a lot of students in computer science, that will allow us to make the case to invest more resources in that department.”