In demand: UM, tech industry announce initiative to train highly skilled workforce

“Every industry will need highly skilled tech workers,” said Galen Hollenbaugh, Montana Department of Labor and Industry commissioner at Monday’s unveiling of the Tech Skills for Tomorrow initiative. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Missoula County’s booming tech businesses have partnered with the University of Montana in an effort to train the thousands of highly skilled employees needed in the next decade.

The resulting Tech Skills for Tomorrow initiative was unveiled Monday afternoon at Missoula College.

Tech leaders said they anticipate a shortage of at least 10,000 skilled employees in Montana as an estimated 100,000 baby boomers retire over the next 10 years.

Jobs like cloud computing, fiber-optic cable installation/repair, cybersecurity and software engineering already are in demand. The across-the-industry initiative will provide real-world, hands-on training for UM students.

The future business atmosphere bodes well for UM graduates, but also for Missoula County’s economy, which is experiencing a tech upswing.

Growth in the tech business sector is up 11% in Missoula County – compared to only 4% across Montana, said Grant Kier, Missoula Economic Partnership president and CEO. 

Kier was one of four business leaders and initiative sponsors touting the long-range initiative in a county where the average tech wage is over $80,000 – the highest in Montana, he said.

But the future clearly depends upon a skilled tech workforce.

“Every industry will need highly skilled tech workers,” said Galen Hollenbaugh, Montana Department of Labor and Industry commissioner. “Wages are up, but we’re not producing enough people for the number of jobs we have out there.” 

Hollenbaugh suggested the old apprenticeship model – long the route for skilled trades – is outdated.

“This is not your father’s apprenticeship anymore,” he said. Now, “a business person hires, then trains, then wages go up as a worker gains experience.” 

Countering the argument that newly trained apprentices will move elsewhere after gaining needed skills, Hollenbaugh said 90% of apprentices remain with their original employer – in part because employees tend to want to stay in Montana.

Everyone in the technology sector, said Hollenbaugh, must be able and willing to continually upgrade skills as lifelong learners. 

Among the initiatives that will help students better prepare for future jobs, the Become An Alum program teams UM with the Missoula Job Service to contact former students who dropped out of college since 2013.

Become An Alum case managers Carol Evanger and Tyson Kuntz of the Job Service work with students on campus to help them figure out why they dropped out of school in the first place – and aid them in remedying any setbacks along the way as they rejoin the campus.

“We’ve made over 2,500 contacts, but our goal is to get 200 enrolled by spring semester,” said Kelly Deniger, Missoula Job Service manager. That means any former student who lives within 100 miles – including Ravalli, Mineral and Lake counties – is eligible for guidance. 

The goal is to re-enroll them in school, no matter the life circumstances that led their withdrawal. Since last August, Become An Alum has re-enrolled 90 students.

“I think it’s been very successful,” said Deniger. “The goal is to get some support to people who may have had problems getting through the system. In order to have success, if they have three contacts at school, they’ll be more successful.”

For example, Labor and Industry provides some financial assistance for former students who lacked book funds, struggled to pay tuition, lacked enough financial aid, had outstanding parking tickets or could not find adequate, affordable daycare.

“Whatever the problem, we’ll see them through it,” said Deniger. 

Panelists and sponsors teaming with the University of Montana to create the Tech Skills for Tomorrow initiative are from left, Grant Kier, Christina Henderson, Galen Hollenbaugh, UM President Seth Bodner and Michael Punke. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

UM targets its Become An Alum outreach to former students who earned 30 or more credits, while the Job Service targets those with 30 credits or fewer.

Christina Henderson, director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a nonpartisan, statewide organization with 250 members that have reconfigured Montana as a technology hub, said industries need more well-rounded employees than were the early stereotype of tech employees.

Now tech companies seek employees with interdisciplinary experiences, people skills and career skills, she said. 

For example, cybersecurity experts also need people skills in order to communicate with hackers and clients; internships and hands-on, experiential learning broadens those career skill sets. 

The “productive relationship” initiative between UM and businesses includes making “can-do” contacts with companies across the technology industry.

“UM is uniquely positioned to capture the hearts and minds of students who want to launch high-paying careers in the high-tech sector,” said Henderson, adding that “technology married with the liberal arts and the humanities” is the key approach of the initiative.

Among the pilot programs is a two-day certificate training program where 31 students learned how to connect a fusion splicer machine as part of the fiber optic program, said Michael Punke, Amazon Web Services Global Public Policy vice president and author of “The Revenant.”

The partnership is meeting diverse challenges head-on, said UM President Seth Bodner – while also working with students of all stripes: nontraditional, working, former students, traditional. 

“We’re seeing a dynamic workplace and technological advances in areas such as AI and automation, some of which is driving economic growth,” said Bodner. “But we’re also seeing the displacement of workers and a concerning skills gap that is widening rapidly as new technologies and careers are emerging.”

Finding “talent” remains a challenge, Bodner said, due in part to the rapidly changing world. 

“Not all of us come from the same point,” Bodner added. “We believe it’s very important to provide different pathways.”

The partners will remain agile and flexible in the face of changing technology and business demands, he said. 

“We also recognize that not all students are starting from the same place,” Bodner added. “Yes, we have students who will join us straight from high school, but others who will join us later, perhaps after some time in the military … or maybe some time in the workforce … or maybe at the end of a 20-year career in one field as they are working to transition to a new career. And to serve this diverse range of students, we must have a broad array of pathways for them to access education.”

Among the other sponsors of the Tech Skills for Tomorrow initiative are Allegiance, ATG a Cognizant Company, Blackfoot, Community Medical Center, The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Glacier Bancorp, Glaxosmithkline, Inimmune, iResponse, LMG Security, Lumenad, Montana Hospital Association, Silvergate Recruiting, Stockman Bank and Submittable.