Missoula College tech program

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar speaks during an event highlighting the partnership between community businesses and Missoula College on Monday. The program aims to pair students with local businesses in an effort to strengthen Missoula's work force.

Montana is facing dual economic headwinds in the coming decades as “baby boomers” retire out of the workforce while technology rapidly changes the skills needed in the workplace.

To address both those issues, the University of Montana announced on Monday a new initiative called Tech Skills for Tomorrow, which it says is an effort with strategic partners to provide the education and training that employers in the state increasingly need.

At a luncheon at Missoula College, UM President Seth Bodnar discussed the initiative with executives from Amazon Web Services, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, the Missoula Economic Partnership, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and local tech companies like ATG-Cognizant, Submittable and LumenAd.

“Montana faces a unique challenge in that our state faces a worker shortage and, at the same time, an emerging tech sector in one of the most vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems in the country,” Bodnar said. “Missoula College and the University of Montana have an important role to play in addressing this challenge, and Tech Skills for Tomorrow is an important framework for our response.”

Bodnar said UM faculty have proposed a new bachelor's degree program in software engineering, and if it passes through the approval process it would be available in the fall of 2020. He noted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of software engineering to grow 21% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations, and the average salary stands at $105,590 per year. The media arts program at UM is also proposing a new track in game design and interactive media, he said.

Bodnar also noted the employment company LinkedIn identified cloud computing as the most in-demand hard skill of 2019.

To address this need, Bodnar said UM has collaborated with Amazon Web Services to teach more students about cloud technology skills at Missoula College for its information technology certificate and associate degree programs.

"We’re excited to share that this new certificate in cloud computing has been developed, is currently progressing through the UM approval process, and pending approval, will be available for students this January 2020," Bodnar said.

Michael Fitzgerald, the CEO of a fast-growing local tech company called Submittable, said he needs employees with a well-rounded education, not just hard tech skills.

"When things get tense, you need people skills," he explained.

Fitzgerald graduated with a creative writing degree from UM and noted that about 80% of Submittable employees have a liberal arts degree of some sort.

Tom Stergios, the senior vice president of strategy at ATG-Cognizant in Missoula, said the 194 people employed at the company's offices here have a varied educational background.

"I think almost every major that the university has, we have in our 194 employees," he said. "From chemistry to journalism to theater arts to communications and of course a tremendous amount through the business school. But you name it. We just got an employee who has a degree in cultural anthropology."

Michael Punke, the author of "The Revenant" who now serves as the vice president of public policy for Amazon Web Services, said cloud computing is "just as important" as the birth of personal computers and the birth of cellphones.

"I know the growth in this industry is going to be enormous," he said.

Only 18% of the world's data is currently on the cloud, which he said is actually massive underground servers that store huge amounts of data. In 10 years, he expects almost all of the data on the planet to be stored in the cloud.

Last year, CNBC reported that Amazon Web Services accounts for a huge portion of Amazon's overall earnings.

Galen Hollenbaugh, commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, said statistics show Montana losing 100,000 people to retirement and only 90,000 to replace them over the next decade. 

"Supply and demand, our population, we aren't producing enough people for the jobs that are not only coming but the jobs that we have out there," he said. 

To address that, he noted that the state is partnering with the Montana University System to support degree completion, technical training and apprenticeship programs.

Christina Henderson, the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, said surveys by UM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research show that high-tech industry jobs pay an average of twice the median wage in Montana.

"A shortage of skilled talent is the number one barrier to growth cited by Montana high-tech and manufacturing companies for five consecutive years," she noted. "This initiative marks a huge leap forward in taking action to address the workforce gap.”

Jon Harbor, executive vice president and provost at UM, said the university has to make sure programs are continually refined and changed over time so students are prepared for their entire careers. 

"What we've heard here today was a real willingness and interest from employers to engage with higher education to make sure that the types of programs we develop and put together are well-suited to their needs today and tomorrow," he said.

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