Creating opportunities for West Michigan's tech talent pipeline to change the world

What line of work are you in?

Does it involve technology?

"Basically every business today is a tech business of some sort," says Randy Thelen, president and CEO of The Right Place. "We saw businesses make some rapid transitions into a much more tech-oriented environment. And we saw that firsthand with restaurants and small businesses that embrace more tech than ever before but, even more so, in the large size companies that are enabling technologies to drive their business."

The demand for tech talent has been growing exponentially across all sectors since 2020.

Randy Thelen, president and CEO of The Right PlaceThrough a survey of area companies, The Right Place found that more than 70% of member businesses identified technology as highly important to their strategy and 72% are considering increasing their tech hiring over the next five years.

"Three out of four businesses in the region are raising their hand and saying they are tech companies. [And] they're looking for more and more tech talent," Thelen says. "From a community standpoint, we know the benefits of tech work. The wages tend to be quite a bit higher for those roles and present a tremendous opportunity for people."

In the next 10 years, Thelen predicts that the tech sector will grow from 6.7% of the regional workforce to 10%. But that will also require educating or attracting 20,000 tech workers to the area.

"Just look at the jobs that we engage with today. Walk into a restaurant," Thelen says. "The people working in a restaurant today are far more tech enabled than they were five years ago. Working on a manufacturing floor basically running very advanced technology enabled machines, they're much more tech oriented than ever before. We see that across the spectrum of employment."

Technology has become a greater focus in regional schools. Davenport University has fostered a robust cybersecurity program. Grand Valley State University has grown its Applied Computing Institute and computer science programs. The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) has expanded training programs. Boot camps offer more concentrated opportunities. And then there are nontraditional training and education opportunities through online certification programs.

"It's really coming from a variety of places in terms of education and training," Thelen says.

Technology in school

The increased demand for technology talent affects every sector that students are trained and educated in at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). That includes IT as well as health care, manufacturing, construction, energy and other industries, says Julie Parks, executive director of workforce training at GRCC.

"Every manufacturing student is learning tech," Parks says. "But culinary students are too. There are robotic coffee makers now. Look at what [the] fast food industry is doing. Look at what the grocery industry is doing. All of that is very affected by technology."

GRCC's computer information systems department has been focusing on preparing students for gaining certifications and nationally-recognized credentials from tech giants like Linux, Cisco, and Microsoft, which are sought after by employers with tech needs.

Bolstering those career pathways, in August 2022, GRCC was selected as one of 15 colleges nationwide to be awarded a $40,000 grant, provided by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Dell Technologies and Intel. 

The grant money will support the construction of a hybrid laboratory that will expose students to concepts in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, data analytics and automation.  

"AI is a tool," Parks says. "It's like any tool that you have, like a camera. Some users need to understand how to just use the camera. Some need to know how to fix the camera. Some need to know how to design the next camera. People shouldn't be afraid of that. They just need to be open to [it]."

Being open doesn't even have to mean being an experienced coder. The latest "no-code" tools require little programming experience to understand.

"If our region wants to be a leader in the world, we all need to be open to learning tech skills and to learn what AI and automation means," Parks says. "If we don't do that, we're going to be left behind."

GVSU Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Miloš Topić, Ph.D., recalls a recent home improvement project where augmented reality (AR) came into play. Wanting a fire pit in his backyard, Topić was measuring the area for some time before he went to the Lowe's website to look at kits and bricks and noticed something he hadn't seen before. Topić pushed a button that said ‘AR’ and his camera popped up with the overlay of the fire pit he had in mind. Pointing his phone at any corner of the yard, Topić could see what the fire pit might look like, without ever having lifted a shovel.

Miloš Topic, Ph.D.Clearly, technology is everywhere and so is the need for people with the skills to develop, operate and maintain those systems.

"I have asked my colleagues at a couple of different universities in the past to name one area or department that would perform better without tech," Topić says. "I'm still waiting to get a list."

At Grand Valley State University, there have long been opportunities for industry to partner with higher education. The school has recently concentrated on creating internships and experiences for students "early on as they come in as freshmen as opposed to a capstone internship at the end for a semester as a senior," says Topić. "We can bring that partnership and those synergies together earlier in the process."

Not just training students in new technology, but exposing them to technologies that are still being developed and as they are being developed, will better prepare them for future careers, Topić says. The earlier a student has the opportunity to understand these concepts, the more time they have to master them, and potentially change the world with their own new ideas.

"When we come up with a new product, we deploy it and then train people on it. That's out of sequence. That's too late," Topić says. "People's hands should be held. They should be prepped, their questions should be answered alongside and ahead of that launch, so when that new product is introduced, the adoption increases and the intended outcome is achieved."

Retaining tech talent

The last few years have seen many companies adopt remote-first or hybrid working models that have given employees in the tech sector more flexibility in where they choose to work.

Across the nation, students are going wherever they perceive to have the best quality of life, Topić says. That means talent from Michigan is being used by companies around the U.S. and the world. Likewise, regional businesses are tapping international talent pools to find staff.

Stacy Paul, CEO of Array of Engineers"I think the big thing that sets apart companies in West Michigan are their core values," says Stacy Paul, CEO of Array of Engineers (AoE). "Knowing what your core values are as a company and living toward those, embracing those and sharing those with your team. I think that's what allows you to keep your talent around and [working] together collaboratively."

Paul says her company tries to create an environment where staff members can excel professionally and personally. AoE invests in the younger generation of science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) learners by sponsoring robotics competitions and senior design projects. Each semester, college interns are mentored and trained by junior and senior engineers.

There are strong connections between everyone on the team. But it's everything that comes before that — raising awareness — which is the biggest challenge to attracting technology talent, Paul says.

"Whether you're looking for a senior engineer, a junior engineer, a co-op or intern, or somebody who doesn't have a degree, it's awareness," she says. "Getting [people] to be aware of the work that we do here in West Michigan. We can work on a commercial aerospace project, a space project, a defense project, right here in West Michigan, as a team."

Moving forward

The world still needs software engineers, but it needs more than that, too. There is high demand for fluency in everything from the more traditional fields like cybersecurity and IT support, to emerging markets like Web 3.0, NFT and blockchain development, "a much wider array of tech opportunities than what we all grew up thinking of in terms of the programmer," Thelen says.

"We need programmers, no question." he says. "But at the same time, not everybody has to be a software engineer to be in manufacturing. The same is true of tech. You can find a great career path across a wide array of companies. For individuals who are looking at a career change or looking at a career field to pursue in college, adding a tech element to that study is going to make them highly, highly marketable."

Even in fields that aren't seemingly technologically complex, technology can still provide valuable solutions and it will take people with technological savvy to build those solutions.

"Technology is not supposed to be front and center. It's what I refer to as a golden thread in the fabric of everything we do," Topić says. "It's what connects us all."

Ask most people what they do for a living and they likely won't say "tech worker." Maybe they don't have to.

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.

Photos courtesy of Kristina Bird, Bird + Bird Studio, The Right Place, Stacy Paul and Miloš Topić.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 25 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm in West Michigan.
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