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A great degree if you can get it

Anne headshot IIIt’s not often I hear the media praised for prompting positive change. But this week it happened when I talked to Amy Moll, the dean of the College of Engineering at Boise State University, about the rising number of tech graduates Boise State is releasing into the workforce.

As most people in industry know by now, Idaho – like many other states – needs more computer science and software engineering graduates if it wants its economy to grow. Idaho’s well behind other states in college graduates overall, but a new study from Idaho Business for Education shows that Idaho employers expect to see their greatest need in the areas of computer science and software engineering.

Boise State University is making some progress in supplying that need. Moll said the number of computer science graduates is expected to nearly double next year, from 20 to 25 this year to 40. She thinks they’ll be at 60 by May 2016.

“All the stories in the media about the need for computer scientists, for software engineers, about the high rate of pay, actually has helped us by attracting people to consider the degree,” Moll said.

The person behind a lot of that media attention is Bob Lokken, an IBE board member who often speaks publicly about the problems he has at his own company, WhiteCloud Analytics, in recruiting the talent he needs. Lokken, who has been talking about a technology talent shortage in Idaho for a decade now, called Boise State “one of the bright spots.

“What Boise State has done around computer science is an example of what happens if people get focused and work together,” he said, referring in part to a $1 million state Department of Labor grant that has helped Boise State increase the number of computer science seats available. “Instead of making excuses, they figured out a way to make it happen.”

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done, according to the IBE report, which came out May 5. IBE is the group that publicized a Georgetown University finding in 2010 that said 60 percent of the jobs in Idaho would require some sort of post-secondary training by 2018. That prompted the state Board of Education and other groups to adopt a 60 percent goal for Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds by 2020. Right now, only 41 percent of Idahoans have that post-secondary credential or degree.

But the goalpost has moved, according to IBE’s report. Georgetown updated its study last year, and now says 68 percent of the jobs in Idaho will need a post-secondary credential by 2018.

IBE’s study was conducted between May 2013 and October 2013 online and had 466 respondents, all private-sector business leaders in Idaho. The study found that the five degree areas that would be in the greatest demand by 2018 were computer science/technology, business and economics, engineering, health science, and communications.

Lokken said he recently did an informal survey of 10 fellow software employers in the valley and found that 60 to 65 percent of their software talent had been imported from out of state.

Some of Moll’s graduates are going straight to jobs at homegrown companies such as MetaGeek, Lokken’s WhiteCloud Analytics, Hewlett Packard, Micron, and Bodybuilding.com. Others are headed to global giants SAP, Sensus, Acquity Group, and Amazon, Moll said.

As the number of computer science and software graduates grows, one of the most important jobs for Lokken and his peers will be steering them to Idaho companies. Often, they’ve heard salaries are low, and don’t even bother to look, Lokken said – a claim he refuted.

“My salaries at WhiteCloud stack up very favorably with out-of-state salaries,” Lokken said.

The job of Moll and other educators will be to persuade policymakers that it’s worth investing money in her department. She needs to make sure there are enough professors available when Boise State has the capacity to turn out 80 or 100 graduates a year. She’s also working on the elementary, middle school and high school level to make sure students have the skills and the motivation to tackle the demanding work required of a technology degree. The reasons are there.

“We’re always close to 100 percent placement,” Moll said of her graduates. “Anybody who looks, finds a job.”

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.