Montana leaders ramp up efforts to meet growing need for high-tech workforce

Travis Wheeler, UM Computer Science professor, speaks to Montana executives about ways they can support tech education in Montana. Two of the most impactful ways are through curriculum input and donations. Photos by Katy Spence/MHTBA.

By Noah Hill

In 2015, Paul Gladen welcomed the inaugural class of students at the Montana Code School. Three years later, the Code School has graduated more than 100 students.

Graduates of the Code School now boast jobs at companies like Oracle, LumenAd, and ATG, which has recently been acquired by Cognizant. The average age of students in the 12-week coding “boot camp” sits somewhere in the late twenties, and most enrolled already have a first degree or even graduate qualifications. According to Gladen, the school occupies a unique niche in the Montana because it introduces employees with life experience into the tech industry, but making the jump into tech, regardless of background, has some associated risks.

“Most of our students haven’t found a job that is rewarding them for their academic abilities,” said Gladen. “Giving them an appreciation of code can make them effective employees.”

Gladen and other Montana technology leaders gathered in Bozeman at a Montana High Tech Business Alliance CEO Roundtable in July hosted by Foundant Technologies to discuss workforce training and how employers can make the transition to technology-driven jobs more enticing to prospective employees.

In addition to the Montana Code School, which caters to individuals looking to make a career change, educators from the University of Montana (UM) in Missoula and Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman discussed how their respective programs prepare college graduates to immediately enter the high tech workforce upon graduation.

According to Brett Gunnink, the Dean of MSU Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, Montana universities can no longer afford to be “sleeping” tech universities that have trouble attracting students interested in fields of engineering, computer science and technology.

“Our competition is Silicon Valley, but we know some of our students don’t want to move there,” Gunnink said. “We need to continue to grow our [programs] so that Montana students will stay in Montana and grow our Montana workforce.”

In addition to a robust computer science program, UM is considering adding a graduate program in data analytics. UM Computer Science professor Travis Wheeler said his program is looking for ways to make computer science a required class for undergraduates.

“We are hoping that these introductory courses will get a lot more students interested in computer science,” said Wheeler.

Brett Gunnink, Dean of MSU Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, said Montana universities need to be more active in marketing and recruiting.

Both faculty members said growing these types of programs would be nearly impossible without enthusiastic support from the tech community in the state. One of the biggest contributions tech companies can make is to provide input about curriculums in university departments that prepare students to enter high tech sectors.

“There are often complicated and circular issues related to curriculum development,” Wheeler said. “We need to know what the tech community needs to have coming out of our doors so that students we are training are equipped to be successful in Montana.”

Providing curriculum feedback, however, is just one of many ways that tech communities can support education in Montana.  

Wheeler encourages tech entrepreneurs to teach a lecture or course as an adjunct instructor. This mutually-beneficial arrangement gives tech leaders access to bright students who could become employees. Additionally, students quickly integrate into the Montana high tech workforce because instructors can connect them to local opportunities.

While some businesses may prefer supporting traditional classroom settings, many companies would rather provide an experiential learning opportunity for students interested in tech. Eric Hathaway, Vice President of Marketing at Zoot Enterprises, wants to increase internship opportunities available at his company but notes the difficulty of retaining those interns after their position ends.

“[Internships] are great because you don’t have to pick and choose employees from other companies to build your own company,” said Hathaway “Unfortunately, Zoot and other companies that offer internship programs have become more of a breeding ground for other employers who can recruit interns away from the Montana tech community.”  

Montana companies have a hard time competing with salaries and catchy job titles in Silicon Valley. Wheeler said students are looking for somewhere cool and exciting to work, and local companies need to show students Montana job opportunities are on par with those in urban areas.

“We need to do more to convince the students that they can get the same work environment within Montana, that what our companies offer is the same as big companies outside Montana,” said Wheeler.

Additionally, many high school students do not realize the abundance of tech opportunities in the state. According to Gunnink, high schools are the biggest driver of the tech workforce, but computer science courses are few and far between in Montana high schools. Right now, MSU offers dual enrollment courses designed to get students thinking about computer science and engineering before they even start college, but Gunnink would like to see high school teachers trained in teaching computer science so that it could be integrated into vocational curriculums.

“The bottom line is that we need to continue to grow our programs,” said Gunnink.

Wheeler echoed Gunnink’s statement but told the executives around the table that monetary resources would also go a long way toward training a better Montana tech workforce.

“I’ve got this call to arms for the community,” said Wheeler. “Advocacy from this collective would be very valuable, but the contribution of funds is going to have the biggest return on investment for you.”


About the Author: Originally from Kalispell, Noah Hill will graduate from the University of Montana in May with a degree in microbiology and plans to attend law school. In his free time, Noah enjoys rafting, fishing, hiking, and reading a good book.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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