While it’s no secret that Augusta’s high-tech market is booming, whether the local workforce will be ready to fill the plethora of job openings in coming years is less certain.
The Technology Association of Georgia predicts that by 2018, more than 210,000 jobs in science, technology engineering and math-related fields will open in the state.
TAG President and CEO Tino Mantella said he’s worried a STEM staffing crisis is looming, citing an aging work population nearing retirement, H-1B work visa restrictions and a lack of interest from young students in STEM fields.
“We hear every day that, ‘I can’t fill my jobs,’ ” Mantella said of the technology trade organization’s 24,000 members, “ ‘I’m looking for programmers. I’m looking for systems engineers. I’m looking for application developers. I’m looking for people that can do Java.’ It is a real issue. There’s going to be more pressure on the industry.”
Augusta, with a strong foothold in the health care industry, the oncoming U.S. Army Cyber Command expansion at Fort Gordon and a multitude of tech-based startups popping up across the area, is expected to play a leading role in the state’s future health IT and information security industries.
In April, during TAG’s industry presentation, Mantella said Augusta trailed only Atlanta in having the state’s fastest-growing technology sector. The city also made headlines in 2012 after San-Francisco based Engine Advocacy ranked Augusta’s metro area second in the country for growth in the high-tech job sector over the past five years. The number of technology positions jumped by 81 percent, according to the group.
“I think from an education standpoint, the schools are slowly subscribing to the idea that they need to add more of these classes to the curriculum,” said Grace Belangia, the co-founder of techie hot spot The Clubhou.se. “We’re just sort of playing catch-up a little bit.”
Through The Clubhou.se, launched downtown in 2012, Belangia is involved in grass-roots efforts to train children and young adults in coding, programming, graphic design and other technical skills they’re not always introduced to at school. This fall, the group is launching a 12-week semi-robotics league to give children an early taste of working in a STEM field.
Belangia said it’s important to cultivate an environment that will keep local talent in the area.
“Maybe they go to Georgia Regents,” she said. “Maybe they go somewhere else, but they know they can come to Augusta and get a really great, good-paying technology job and they don’t have to go somewhere else in the Southeast or country. That’s the intent is to create a higher level of workforce in the Augusta-area related to technology.”
According to a ManpowerGroup survey released this spring, several STEM-related industries have ranked for the past decade among the top 10 hardest jobs to fill nationally and globally. A recent Bookings Institution study also showed that STEM vacancies are taking twice as long to fill.
Despite the statistics, David Simoneau, a senior project manager at Augusta-based Cranston Engineering Group, doesn’t foresee a
talent gap in the local market.
“We’ve just recently hired several people, and didn’t really have a problem finding qualified folks,” he said. “The next 10 years look real positive to me.”
At the Intermedix office downtown, which provides billing and management software for health care and emergency response industries across the nation, director of software engineering Scott Johnson is also optimistic about the future. He said the company, formerly ESi and now based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been successful in recruiting junior-level employees from local and state universities.
“When it comes to senior-level software engineers, Augusta has proven to have capable and qualified talent,” he said. “The challenge in recruitment for the more experienced positions is the fact that most of these individuals are already ingrained in their existing organizations and are not likely to be looking for new opportunities.”
Most agree that introducing children at an early age to STEM concepts is key to keeping the future applicant pool replenished.
Area schools are looking at ways to better prepare students for STEM careers. The new career pathway program that requires Georgia high school students to choose and complete courses for a specific career path before graduation is full of technology-focused options, said Shelly Allen, Richmond County’s director of curriculum.
In addition, the Richmond County school system wrapped up its third annual STEM Institute this week, training more than 300 teachers on strategies and hands-on activities to better teach STEM concepts. Another initiative, the Bring Your Own Technology program, was launched last year and gives students the option of using their personal smartphones or electronic devices in class for academic study, she said.
Educators are working to introduce a new cyber-security curriculum, said Debbie Alexander, Richmond County’s assistant superintendent for instruction.
Simoneau said he’s encouraged local schools are starting to implement some kind of STEM day.
“When you engage them at an early age, they might not become engineers,” he said, “but if they’ve got that mindset to think through the problem, use the scientific method, go through the motions, I think the future is bright for having plenty of technical people.”