Workforce development and STEM awareness — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are two key success areas for Tech Collective, Rhode Island-based technology industry association that’s leveraging its state’s small size to make personal connections with the legislators who influence the future of these programs. We spoke to Tech Collective Executive Director Kathie Shields to hear about the group’s progress, their victories and her tips on how to make change happen.
How have you spearheaded workforce development and STEM awareness, interest and participation?
Through our member companies, Tech Collective has worked during the past five years to build programs around youth awareness of STEM careers; as well as unemployed adults working to re-enter or transition to a tech career; and incumbent workers. In the area of youth awareness we have several programs we conduct, including GRRL Tech (Girls Reaching Remarkable Levels), which has really taken off. This is a one-day expo taking place at a local college or university for approximately 500 high school girls in 10th and 11th grade, including 300 volunteers. It is usually done in March during spring break and we take over the campus. The girls get to participate in two interactive, hands-on workshops that are conducted by a female professional or professor. The objective is to expose and inspire girls to consider an education and/or career in a STEM field. It’s not just career awareness day in the sense that people come in and speak about what they do; it is hands-on interactive workshops. In one of the workshops last year, the girls got to use software to learn how to engineer and design ski slopes. We really take it to a fun place so that they’re engaged, but at the same time they’re definitely learning about the technologies.
We also built another program called STEM in the Middle, modeled on GRRL Tech but for middle school girls in fifth through eighth grade. Middle school is a key time when students really start deciding if they want to go down a STEM pathway. This is when students start to make some predisposed, subconscious career decisions.
Throughout the year we have career awareness activities that include industry speakers and tours coordinated for high schools with our member companies. We really have become kind of a facilitator and a liaison between these schools and the employers here to be able to make sure that they’re matched up.
I’ve also been appointed to Career Pathways Advisory Council, a statewide initiative implemented in 2010. The council is made up of both employers and folks that are in government and education. It oversees work to change public systems and align private programs, organizations and services to the initiatives and development of formulated career pathways that youth and unemployed adults can follow in order to get educated and gain employment. It was really put in place to be an advisory council that could oversee a lot of the work that was going on in both the public and private workforce development systems. We are looking at how we can identify the high-growth industries, then, how we emphasize and put the right tools and systems in place, both for our public and private organizations and programs to make sure that people can follow those career pathways to high-growth industries.
For example, with IT being one of the highest growth industries, we make sure that the information is available not only for the employed but for people coming out of an industry like manufacturing where it’s not in high-growth mode. How do they transition to that industry? Do they have skills they can identify that are transitional? What do they need to do if they want to go back to school? What are the different programs both short term and long term for education that they could get involved with? Who can they be matching up with based on their current skills? And what kind of future education do they need to have to work for their ideal employer?
What are some of the policy successes that have driven innovation and growth for Rhode Island?
We’ve had the opportunity to really work with our government on a local level to figure out how we can address the high unemployment rate. Really, what it boils down to is how the workforce is changing. Not to be cliché, we really need to be preparing our 21st century workers and not just have people go out and say, “OK, what do I like to do and let me see what I end up falling into.” We really want to put more structure around guiding people to the skills they need. Via our state’s Governor’s Workforce Board, we have been very active in providing input and direct feedback on the programs and services being offered by the state to employers to assist them in their workforce/talent development activities.
We have put in place programming and initiatives such as the Incumbent Worker Training program. Tech Collective obtains grant funds to supplement employer budgets to provide additional training to their growing and developing workforce.
We also have the Fellowship Program, which matches graduating college students with employers for a 12-week, full time and paid fellowship position. Students not only gain experience but employers can take the time to assess a student’s potential right out of school before offering a paid position.
A very popular initiative is the IT On-Demand Training Program, which was developed to fill mid-level positions. The funding to launch this program was secured through our state Governor’s Workforce Board. The program recruits long-term unemployed IT workers whose skills are outdated but who have the foundation and aptitude to be trained via a 14-week training and internship program. In our most recent class, we trained for VMware. During the first class, we had 100 percent completion, and a third of the class was hired directly by employers prior to the internships. We actually had a bidding war going on by employers for our students! Plus the average salary was $50,000 and above, and so we’ve really had a great opportunity here to put some good, hard-working people back to work by updating their skills as well as meeting a need employers had for these midlevel positions — positions they couldn’t find people to fill.
Given the small size of Rhode Island, you have personal contact with all the legislators. Any tips on your interaction with them that may be scalable to those in larger states?
In Rhode Island, we have the advantage that our local, state and federal legislators are very accessible to us not only because of logistics, but because of our small population.
We find success by first knowing the schedule of legislators. For example, we know that in Rhode Island, our federal delegation is typically available on a Monday, and we always make sure that if there is a meeting or event that we want to see them at, we schedule it on a Monday. Also, we hold business roundtable sessions with our representatives, and typically take advantage of the summer recess to schedule these. Lastly, we work to stay in contact with their state office staff, just as much as their federal staff. We do this via sending them our news, retweeting their news, mentioning them in our tweets, sharing their news, and meeting with the local staff periodically to update them on our initiatives.
What would you recommend to other states when working with government officials and legislators on issues related to workforce and STEM?
Officials and legislators want to be associated with programs and initiatives that are addressing our nation’s issues. Obviously, employment and our next generation workforce are a major focus. So invite them to attend your event. Have them provide a comment or quote in press releases, news and social media. Ask them to sit on panels at events. Also, we ask them to provide citations to our workforce graduates, program winners and employers who have stepped forward to volunteer and contribute to programs and services. It’s a great way to recognize employers.
Why is it important to be involved on both a federal and state level?
CEOs of small to midsize IT companies are so busy with the day-to-day management of their own companies, it is very difficult for them to have foresight and knowledge of what is being worked on at the federal level, especially when it is not a problem or opportunity directly in front of them.
As a state tech association, we have the opportunity to educate our legislators and make sure they understand the needs of employers. Even though we have a high unemployment rate, we have companies that can’t find people to fill jobs open for nine months or longer. Education is key.
How does participating in TechVoice as an alliance partner help your organization be successful?
TechVoice provides an opportunity for state associations to facilitate this focus for small to midsize companies with a line of sight to the federal level. Tech Collective had not been as active in the past on the federal level, before it joined TechVoice last year. TechVoice has provided us the tools, awareness and facilitation to be in-the-know of current issues. We’ve been able to pass along knowledge of federal issues, policies and initiatives to our member companies and community with very little additional work. As a community of small to mid-size businesses that can have a federal voice, TechVoice has shown results. Participating in TechVoice helps us focus on the issues of most importance to our member companies.