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New schools aim to tackle Nebraska’s tech talent gap

There’s a talent gap in today’s workforce and people are feeling it — in Nebraska and nationwide.

“The demand has been growing and at a certain point someone needs to address that demand,” said Jerod Santo, founder of the Omaha-based software company Object Lateral.

He’s talking about the lack of web developers, coders and individuals with computing proficiency.

In fact, five out of the top 12 toughest places in the U.S. to recruit tech talent are in the middle of the country, according to a recent hiring survey from Dice, a technology and engineering career website.

UNL professor Charles Riedesel links this struggle to a lack of education about these types of jobs, contributing to low enrollment in computer science programs.

“We’ve had a severe lack (of education) for quite a number of years and the challenge is trying to get students attracted to it,” said Riedesel, who has served as the chief undergraduate adviser for computer science and computer engineering programs at UNL since 1995.

In the early 2000s the computer science and computer engineering undergraduate class at UNL peaked at 650 students, he said, but in recent years the number has been much lower and is slow to rise, following national trends.

In the past five years, Riedesel said post-graduate surveys have shown a nearly 100 percent employment rate for graduates of the computer science and computer engineering programs at UNL. The average starting salary for these graduates is estimated at $50,000 to $60,000. The problem is that there just aren’t enough of these graduates, he said.

In December 2013, CareerLink found 404 web-related job openings within 100 miles of Omaha, said Santo, who also heard employers in the tech industry talk about how the number of job openings could be as high as 2,000.

These unfilled jobs are seen in big corporations as well as startups, said Shonna Dorsey, a corporate tech recruiter. Dorsey has met with business owners who are confounded by the fact that some jobs go unfilled for five to even 24 months.

But next month, two schools are hoping to change that. The Omaha Code School and Interface will begin hand-building a tech-based labor force by offering courses that aim to transform their students into the sought-after tech talent.

“I think that schools like this and different approaches are necessary,” said Dorsey, the managing director at Interface. “There is never really one answer, so having multiple schools is what will need to happen in the Midwest.”

Interface and the Omaha Code School are open to individuals of any age who have an interest in coding and web development and can invest the required time and tuition into the programs.

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Interface is headed up by Dorsey, Santo and a team of others who offer two tracks of classes: web development and analysis and management. Both tracks are designed to be flexible and offer options that fit a variety of schedules and skill levels.

The analysis and management courses are offered in the morning and web development classes in the afternoon, with sessions that range from one to 10 weeks long starting March 3 in Omaha.  A summer session will be held in Lincoln and Omaha, with registration beginning in March.

“We want to reach people at young ages, people who have been in the workforce for a while… Wherever you are with your personal goals, we want to have offerings for you,” said Santo, a lead instructor for the web development classes at Interface.

Santo said the goal of each class is to create a hands-on experience for students in order to foster as much learning as possible. To accomplish this, introductory classes will involve 15 to 20 students while the intermediate and advanced courses will take 10 or 12 students.

The students are carefully selected from the applicants, said Santo, because he believes it takes a  “certain personality” to adjust to this unique type of education.

Interface is still taking applicants and the founders are beginning to meet with applicants as they select students for spots in the various courses.

“Now the fun part starts: meeting with people and seeing how we can help them,” Santo said.

Prices for Interface classes vary by course and duration of the course, ranging from a one-week analysis and management class for $525 to a $1,000-to-$6,000 web development class series. Students who want to take both tracks of classes for a total of 10 weeks pay a flat fee of $7,000.

While the price may seem steep, the instructors at Interface feel it’s reasonable for the investment students are making in their future careers.

At the end of Interface courses and workshops, students will receive a certificate of completion. Students must attend and complete a minimum number of courses and workshop hours to be awarded the certificate. Additionally, students who complete the 10 week web development track will have 3-5 projects to add to their development portfolio.“I’m most excited about giving people the opportunity to improve their lives in such a short amount of time,” Dorsey said. “It’s a confidence-building thing. You can impact your community, your family and all by this one experience.”

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Omaha Code School has a different approach and is focused on creating an immersive learning experience. The course teaches web development skills, seven days a week for 12 weeks with classes starting Feb. 24 at its Metro Crossing location in Omaha.

To apply, students complete a series of simple coding exercises with their application.

“We sent them links to online resources for beginners and told them to spend 20 hours on them and then they should be able to do basic coding,” said Sumeet Jain, the lead instructor for the Omaha Code School. “We wanted to see if they could induce some very basic coding skills.”

The course is designed to turn beginners into hirable students, said Jain, though he knows certain students will adapt better to the immersive nature of the Omaha Code School.

The total cost of the class is $6,000 and requires students to complete pre-course work as well as devote themselves to 12 weeks of schooling.

After being accepted to the Omaha Code School, Andy von Dohren quit his job at a large insurance company in Omaha after working there for nearly six years.  It was his first job after graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a degree in computer science, and he said he is ready for something new.

The 29-year-old said he has been interested in website development for a long time, but was not able to teach himself more than just the basics.

“The combination of wanting to do something new and take my web development skills to the next level fit the agenda of this course,” said von Dohren, who is blogging about his experience. “I am really not nervous about taking this course. I know this is the right decision for my life right now.”

Jain is confident in what the Omaha Code School can offer students. He taught a similar course in San Francisco last summer and is still in touch with many of his students who are now full-time web developers.

“We want to increase the technical quotient in this region, and there are a lot of companies that are trying to build interesting products and they’re finding they need developers and they can’t find them,” said Jain, who dropped out of college to make websites.

Jain said the Omaha Code School had 80 applicants, but it is capping its first class at 16 students. Fourteen students are currently enrolled.

At the end of the course,  students won’t receive an official certificate, because it’s not an accredited course, but Jain said he’s confident Omaha Code School will give students the knowledge to take their career paths to the next level.

Jain hopes to address the “brain drain” of good talent from Nebraska by creating “trajectory-changing” experiences and careers for his students.

Thirty-five-year-old Jonathan Preston is hoping Omaha Code School will change his future.

Preston has lived on Social Security and disability payments for nearly 10 years because, he said, he suffers from severe depression and anxiety.

After two years of intensive therapy and personal motivation, Preston is ready to settle into a career and job so he can get off disability payments.

He decided to pursue the Omaha Code School after seeing a Facebook ad and checking out the school’s website.

“It’s going to give me a set of concrete, usable, in-demand skills when I’m done,” said Preston, a self-proclaimed computer geek. “Coming off of disability is going to be wonderful. People think that it is easy not to work, but it’s not easy. It’s incredibly hard.”

To help pay for his tuition, Preston is sharing his story on Indiegogo, a website that gives users a platform to raise money for various types of campaigns.

He has raised nearly $1,500 and is amazed by the people who have donated, ranging from friends and family to some of Jain’s former students.

“The thing that I like about what seems to be going on here is that the existing IT community seems to be cheering for us, and that is unbelievable,” Preston said.

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Encouraging the IT community is a major goal for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development’s new IT Council. Tech gurus from Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney  are collaborating on how to inform Nebraskans about the technological climate of the state.

“We’re basically hoping to improve the economic climate for the tech community in the state,” said Jacob Knutson, the IT cluster coordinator. “(We hope) we can build more business and better business and hopefully keep the talent here.”

The group is in its early stages, said Knutson, but it’s looking forward to pooling ideas to help the state deal with the current state of tech jobs

The Council is currently working on an impact study through UNL’s Bureau of Business Research. The study will show the number of jobs in the information technology sector as well as other statistics concerning these jobs. The main purpose is to show how much of an economic impact the industry has on the state of Nebraska, Knutson said.

Employers from Nebraskan Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses are represented in the group, and members hope to enhance communication between cities across the state.

For now, Knutson said, he thinks Interface and the Omaha Code School are good places to start.

Riedesel, the UNL adviser, said: “There’s incredible need and it’s my feeling that our entire economy is being held down by the lack of skilled professionals in skilled computing.”

Riedesel said his concern with short-term, high intensity programs like Interface and the Omaha Code School is that only a small number of students will fit that type of learning.

“They seem very targeted to certain individuals and certain jobs,” Riedesel said. “But they have an important place in our educational training system because there are needs that can be met by people who can get through these programs in short order.”

The founders of Interface and the Omaha Code School agreed they want to start slow, despite the high need for tech talent in the state.

Dorsey said people have already asked her whether Interface will migrate to cities beyond Omaha and Lincoln, but she said for now the Interface team wants to focus on these two locations before expanding.

“If we’re able to add to the talent of web developers, then that just helps the entire economy of Nebraska,” Dorsey said.

Preston said he hopes to get a job after finishing his coursework at the Omaha Code School and would like to stay in Nebraska to help the tech community grow.

“Omaha needs help and it helped me,” Preston said. “My big thing is to be independent, to have a job and a career and to live a life worth living…(Omaha Code School) is the building block to that future.”